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Intelligence and counterintelligence in the information war

In today’s world, intelligence and information are inextricably and even more connected; the doctrine views intelligence as information that a state finds essential in making a decision.

December 19, 2020 - New Eastern Europe / Tomasz Kubiak - Hot Topics

Photo: TheDigitalArtist / Pixabay

With the development of technology the number of cyber threats have increased. European and American societies are predominantly at risk and might find themselves under strong influences of foreign powers mainly because of their democratic values and an open access to information. This has forced western countries to adopt their national security strategies and, notably, their counterintelligence and to the new, globalised world.

Intelligence with its accompanying activities have become key components of today’s networked information warfare. It is not just about protecting the state anymore, or collecting and analysing data. Its task is also to educate the society and fight foreign activity in the information sphere such as fake news. It contains all kinds of a state’s activity aimed at protecting its intelligence programme, preventing espionage, sabotage and other cyber- and information activities, which might pose a threat to national security. The field of intelligence has also always included espionage and counterespionage, which traditionally aimed at gaining information. In today’s world, intelligence and information are inextricably and even more connected; the doctrine views intelligence as information that a state finds essential in making a decision. Thanks to new technologies there are a number of new techniques being used by states to gain information, and consequently to increase their power. They do not just rely on human espionage anymore, but also on new cyber methods. However, these new techniques do not just make gaining information easier; they also pose a new kind of threat.

Currently, the biggest threat for NATO and the EU is China and Russia. Both of them have been using their intelligence service to impact not just on European and American societies, but also on their domestic politics. In 2018 the United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre informed that Russian state-sponsored cyber actors had compromised almost one million network devices in key national infrastructure sectors, including telecommunications. According to Foreign Policy magazine China has gathered about 100,000 individuals working on disinformation and cyber-attacks, which make up the largest hacker army in all of history. Both states seem to be a serious threat for Europe. However, at the moment, Russian cyber activities seem to be the most aggressive and influential for the western world. 

The British government admitted that there was proof that Russia had influenced the Scottish referendum campaign. Many also claim, that the Kremlin directly interfered in the Brexit referendum in 2016. The fact that Russian state-controlled broadcasters, such as Sputnik or Russia Today (RT), were openly supporting the idea of leaving the EU by the UK is clear. What is more, there is also a high possibility not just that Russian bots and trolls were engaged in advertising the idea, but also to what extent that British pro-Brexit politicians were backed up by the Kremlin. Russia openly supports anti-European far-right political parties such as Alternative for Germany (AfD) or the French National Front.

Unlike in the Soviet times, Russia might influencing European societies not just by financial support or propaganda, but also by spreading fake news or manipulated information on social media. Russia does not just promote mistrust towards democratic governments, but also tries to influence elections. The report of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election has confirmed that there had been Russian interference in the 2016 US elections, which included millions of tweets produced by Russian bots and trolls. According to the report, 20 per cent of all tweets about the 2016 US elections were posted by Russian disinformation machine. Hundreds of fake news spread through the Internet and many people started to believe them. To cope with them is a difficult task for the American counterintelligence.

Counterintelligence has had to adapt to the new situation. In order to neutralise enemy intelligence, states must not just rely on their traditional resources, but also to develop new branches, for example education. For instance, in the case of American elections to neutralise the negative impact of fake news affecting American society. It is also crucial to adopt cyber defence in order to protect not just data, but also a whole administration, relying nowadays on cyber networks.

Intelligence and counterintelligence face the challenge, but this time they cannot work efficiently without support and co-operation with the societies. The societies themselves have to be more aware of the current affairs of the modern world. There is a lot of work to be done both for national security institutions and for societies to educate, co-operate and protect themselves from these new, modern threats.

This text was prepared based on the podcast titled „Wywiad i kontrwywiad w wojnie informacyjnej” and translated and written by Tomasz Kubiak.

Funding for the translation and podcast series came from a grant by NATO’s Department of Public Diplomacy, in co-operation with the “Stratpoints” Foundation for Security and Development.

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