How big data has changed the world of spies

    Modern-day espionage has evolved into a "cat-and-mouse" game between intelligence services and hostile agents fought against the backdrop of big data.

    Agents continue to gather intelligence from three age-old sources: human interactions, signals and imagery surveillance. Or in layman's terms, conversations between people, sounds, and pictures.

    But big data - extremely large information sets that are analysed by computer -has proven a game changer, one security expert told nine.com.au.

    Intelligence agencies such as Australia's domestic spy agency ASIO are waging a high-tech 'cat and mouse game' with foreign spies and hostile actors, one security expert says. (AAP)

    John Blaxland, a professor of international security and intelligence studies at the Australian National University in Canberra, says the digital revolution is transforming spying.

    "Big data and the digital footprint has made it harder for spies today," he said.Today's well-resourced security and intelligence services across the globe can pinpoint an operative's online presence by using algorithms and other technological tools.

    It's now easier for them to track a person's face, movement, watch, phone and devices."It's become a game of cat and mouse. Now the trick for spies is to hide their digital footprint," Dr Blaxland said.

    Cold war agents were equipped with a range of equipment that was harder to trace than today's digital hardware. When a KGB femme fatale opened her cosmetics case to apply some lipstick, she would also take a photo with a hidden camera. (Julien's Auctions)

    And the internet is proving to be the new espionage battleground for hostile actors and foreign operatives to target information and individuals.

    For an example of this, Dr Blaxland pointed to the revelation by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) this month about spies harnessing social media including some dating sites.

    ASIO boss Mike Burgess in his annual threat assessment speech said the spy agency was also tracking suspicious approaches on dating platforms such as Tinder, Bumble and Hinge.

    Dr Blaxland said the development was based on the espionage tactic of the 'honeypot' , or attractive individuals, to hook unwitting targets."It's an age-old human impulse ... and can be a source of entrapment."

    Spies are turning to some old tricks from the Cold War to avoid being detected by big data. (Image Greg Newington) (Nine)

    But as governments rapidly improve their counter-espionage measures, spies are turning back to tradecraft last seen in the days of the Cold War.

    "Now the trick is to hide your digital footprint," Dr Blaxland said.

    So agents and their contacts are relearning old-school tricks.One of them is the 'dead drop' -a secret location where materials can be left for another party to retrieve.

    Another is the 'brush' past' involving a brief encounter between two people -often in a public place where something is passed between.

    Once regarded as quaint Cold War hangovers, these and other non-digital tactics are finding new life, Dr Blaxland said.

    "Agents are looking to skirt around big data ... they want to circumvent the advanced algorithms."

    Evarist Chahali

    Evarist Chahali

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