Intelligence in the 21st Century: Challenges and New Threats

Text in portuguese Link

André Luís Woloszyn
Analist on Strategic Affairs

The emerging risks and new threats of the 21st century are very different from the traditional threats that we have been used to dealing with in past decades. Currently, they are embodied by hybrid dynamism and advanced technology, which makes them difficult for government agencies to predict and detect.

Across the various expressions of Brazil’s national power, complex issues have risen, posing a direct threat to social stability, such as international terrorism, cybercrime, the growth of global markets and of national and transnational criminal organizations, the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, environmental degradation, climate change, drug trafficking, piracy and bio-piracy, economic and industrial espionage, dual-use technology, and others considered sensitive. This range of subjects has become part of the area of interest of the intelligence services, resulting in a pressing need for a larger number of people to process them and for professional and technical preparation to evaluate their potential, or lack thereof, to become a crisis.

In the same way, this has demanded constant reformulation of counter-intelligence doctrine, with the reorientation of its objectives, positions, and principles. Two points have been brought up as crucial. The first is the protection of sensitive information against virtual attacks or cyber terrorism, attacks which take place daily, targeting military personnel, in different countries, from different sources. The second point involves leaks or the systematic compromising of confidential matters by sources originating within the intelligence community itself, as recently occurred on the Wikileaks website.

This process of transformation is still underway in the majority of intelligence services, and it is slow because it entails the rupture of paradigms present since the creation of these agencies, in large part, following the end of World War II.

As far as doctrine is concerned, it remains practically the same, especially with regard to the collection, search, and analysis of data and the methodology used to produce knowledge. The major difference for the 21st-century intelligence community is in technical and professional preparation and changes in the mindset of its personnel (field agents, analysts, and managers), plus the use of new technologies. These new technologies assist in reducing risk and considerably increase the degree of assurance about certain events, in addition to their specific nature, providing the analyst with a variety of data that allows a more accurate view of the situation in real time, and consequently higher quality in the knowledge produced.

Another important issue is moving away from the “secret-focused perspective” that characterized activity during the Cold War. With today’s diversity of sources and modes of access, a great deal of information is no longer classified as secret. A clear example of this statement is provided by open-source intelligence (OSINT), which collects 80 to 90 percent of its information on the web and on social networks.

It is the knowledge generated from this data after it undergoes the process of analysis that may be classified as secret, and not the data itself. This Cartesian vision, still predominant in some organizations and agencies, ends up hampering greater cooperation between them when it comes to redirecting the analytical process toward other peer agencies in the governmental sphere and greater coordination and effective collaboration among them, especially in data sharing, since there is an enormous amount of collected material that remains in storage due to personnel shortages.

The most damaging consequence is internal competition for information hegemony, bringing with it the possible execution of threats that at first were only a probability. In fact, this was one of the problems noted by the federal commission that investigated the causes of the September 11 attacks, one that more than a decade later continues to be present in various agencies around the world.

Still, despite telling victories, which do not become public knowledge in most occasions, and resounding failures broadcast in the media in a sensationalist manner, this activity has come to be recognized by the international community as a vital area for practically all expressions of national power, notably in the military, economic, scientific, and technological fields, with direct consequences for international politics.

In view of the emergence of new non-state actors, the current perception is that the development and progress of any society necessarily entails the efficient provision of advice to the decision-making process at its highest level on sensitive matters involving wide-ranging and complex issues, such as security, defense, and sovereignty.

In this context, it is natural that controversies and uncertainties should arise in different quarters, in some cases due to lack of knowledge about this activity and its mechanisms of control by the state. Among the most convincing is the position that defends the thesis that excessive power given to intelligence services must result in curtailment of freedom and a decrease in individual rights and guarantees in the name of a hybrid enemy, as described in George Orwell’s classic work 1984.

This fear is especially felt in Latin American countries, where between the decades of 1960 and 1980, information services emphasized the domestic field of operations, detecting and imprisoning members of the communist movement, a period during which some abuses were perpetrated. Currently, the threats are more complex, all-encompassing, and lethal.

In conclusion, intelligence activity will always be a source of fascination for people due to their need to solve mysteries and the unknown, or even due to the secret classification attributed to its content, which will continue to nourish the widest possible variety of paranoia and conspiracy theories. However, the great lesson that history teaches us with respect to this activity is that from pre-history until our own day, it has become ever more firmly established as an indispensable tool for the survival of societies in a world that has always been highly competitive and in which new risks and threats appear every day.


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