AI-Powered Espionage – A Bond Movie or Actual Reality?

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is creeping into the world of espionage, and likely augmenting the capabilities of human spies and secret services agencies. It joins an environment where strategies must be based on massive amounts of data, and decided in minutes.

One thing that really drives me crazy is when reality starts looking like a sci-fi movie from the 80s or 90s.

We can argue the present has always been influenced by the wonkiest predictions about the future since at least the time of Jules Verne.

However, it’s indisputable that the recent technological revolutions – the Internet and artificial intelligence (AI) above all else – are making our world increasingly look like what we called “cyberpunk” in the 80s.

In what some could see as an unexpected twist, but I’d prefer to call a “prediction from the past,” the world’s secret services have started actively employing artificial intelligence to wage their (now virtual) espionage wars.

And so here we are, living in a world that makes John Badham’s WarGames movie look less like fiction and more like a documentary (albeit with color screens).

Waging War Into Cyberspace

We can all see the impact of shifting the cold war of attrition between the global powers into the virtual space.

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In the last few years, the number of cyberattacks that threatened or even damaged the largest governmental agencies spiked to unprecedented levels, with cyberattacks against governments jumping 95% in the last half of 2022, according to one source.

The more we become connected, the less we are protected by what traditionally granted security to any nation: military power and security.

Maybe it’s rival spy agencies battling against each other, but the implications are quite dire.

Nefarious actors can now cross any border without firing a single bullet, or having to cross any mountain, river, desert, or walled border.

And you don’t need to possess the full might of the whole Chinese or Russian army to pose a serious threat to a U.S. governmental agency anymore.

You just need a small group of proficient hackers, armed with the right set of virtual weapons, possibly powered by some AI. In a nutshell, war isn’t what it used to be anymore – especially espionage war.

AI as a Weapon in Espionage Wars

If the weapons used to wage espionage wars have changed, so does the flow of the war itself.

Intelligence has a completely different shape, size and range today, with millions of datapoints being collected every moment in the blink of an eye.

Big data technologies must be revolutionizing all espionage scenarios, especially since most of this data is open source and can be collected by anyone, rather than from a few clandestine actors.

Information travels at a much higher speed, and the number of actors collecting this information has significantly increased. Facebook, Twitter and Google process hundreds of petabytes of data every day, and new commercial surveillance satellites are launched on a regular basis.

Things happen at a much faster speed, and reaction times are so much tighter.

As the chairwoman of the chair of the HAI Steering Committee on International Security Amy Zegart said:

During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, President Kennedy had 13 days to deliberate in secret about what he would do after U-2 spy planes discovered Soviet missiles in Cuba.

“On 9/11, President George W. Bush had just 13 hours to weigh intelligence about who was responsible for that horrific attack and how the U.S. would respond.

“Today, decision time could be 13 minutes or less.”

With so much data to digest, and so little time to do that, AI is a necessary tool rather than a luxury.

Some of the biggest global players already understand that, and have started collecting datasets to feed their AIs – with or without consent from the recipients.

For example, MI6 chief Richard Moore explained his suspicions about China setting “data traps” during the recent Covid-19 pandemic, when Beijing often forced the countries who bought vaccines from them to share their vaccination datasets with them.

According to Moore, these actions should ring alarm bells about the will of the Chinese to “coerce or create dependencies” that pose a threat to international order.

Moore also explained how the British secret services are currently using AI to disrupt the flow of weapons to Russia during the current war against Ukraine.

Obviously, since they’re on the “good side” of the spy war, and they’re all goody-two-shoes spies, they are going to use AI only in the most “ethical and safe” way. Yeah, sure.

And now we must delve into the question. Which question? The one that is always asked when it comes to AI:

Are Human Spies Going to Be Substituted by AI?

I admit to being a bit biased, being a data analyst myself, but the world of espionage is broader than my line of work, so I can try and provide a hopefully neutral answer to this question.

According to people like Moore and Zegart, there’s no such risk, since the human factor cannot be replaced in so many ways.

It’s true that intelligence collection is going to become more and more dependent on the use of AI. The amount of data that needs to be processed is just too much for humans alone, especially if we look at open-source data alone. Like many industries, AI is going to be another tool of the trade to ease and speed the process of sifting through these massive amounts of information.

Humans are still required to make sense of this information – actually transforming it into actionable “intelligence.” For example, AI could be used to analyze satellite images and flag anomalies, saving humans from the excruciating task of checking thousands of pictures every day.

However, while AI could flag an unusual amount of vehicular traffic coming and going from an enemy base, a human is still required to understand the meaning of this traffic, and decide which action must be taken (if any).

And while it is true that data coming from open sources can be gathered more efficiently by AI, the same cannot be said for confidential information obtained through non-conventional means.

For this type of intelligence gathering, the human relationships established by agents planted in the right places are something AI could never replace.

The Bottom Line

Far from being a weaponized use of AI, the employment of this technology in espionage can significantly augment the capabilities of human spies and secret services agencies.

Therefore, it is going to be (and, to some extent, already is) crucial to protect vital national assets, sensitive secrets and technologies, and ensure global peace and stability.

Oh, and Matthew Broderick was awesome in WarGames, by the way.

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Claudio Buttice
Data Analyst

Dr. Claudio Butticè, Pharm.D., is a former Pharmacy Director who worked for several large public hospitals in Southern Italy, as well as for the humanitarian NGO Emergency. He is now an accomplished book author who has written on topics such as medicine, technology, world poverty, human rights, and science for publishers such as SAGE Publishing, Bloomsbury Publishing, and Mission Bell Media. His latest books are "Universal Health Care" (2019) and "What You Need to Know about Headaches" (2022).A data analyst and freelance journalist as well, many of his articles have been published in magazines such as Cracked, The Elephant, Digital…