Spies Among Us: Modern-Day Espionage

The World's Greatest Spy Capers Photo via AP

The startling discovery of an undercover Russian spy ring last month no doubt shocked many Americans who assumed that international espionage was mostly a product of the Cold War and, these days, Hollywood.

But intelligence experts weren’t the least surprised. “We forget that states like Russia have been conducting espionage for centuries,” says Peter Earnest, a former member of the CIA who is now director of the Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. “It didn’t stop with the Cold War and start again recently. It simply continued.” Of course, diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Russia have improved in recent years, and Earnest says the two governments work together with an unspoken understanding that they are still spying on each other. “It’s just the cost of doing business,” he says.

While professional spying was once about nation-states looking over other governments’ shoulders, today it’s largely about tracking terrorists’ activities and monitoring public communications for suspicious chatter. In fact, intelligence experts say espionage of all shades has actually increased since the Cold War, amplified by new technology and soaring demand for information in the public and private sectors. Just this week, The Washington Post reported that “some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States” as part of the paper’s report on the top-secret world created by Washington after 9/11.

Here’s a look at who’s spying on whom, circa 2010:


When it comes to state-backed espionage, experts say the U.S. has focused much of its recent spying on Iran, North Korea, and China. And these countries, it appears, are returning the favor.

Earnest says the U.S. is the recipient of “hundreds of thousands” of cyberattacks every day, many of which emanate from Beijing. “They want to find out if they can penetrate our firewalls and actually learn intelligence. We believe a good deal has been learned.”

But, of course, computers and satellites can do only so much. Secret agents, like the ones recently deported to Russia, still play a significant role in international spy games, though Earnest says the number of “illegals” currently undercover in the U.S. is unknowable. “The problem with counting spies is that their nature is not to be counted,” he says.

Even longtime strong allies may spy on each other. An Israeli report in 2008 documented a long history of American spying on Israel, particularly in regard to Israel’s secret nuclear program. And there have been several known instances of Israel spying on America, including the famous case of Jonathan Pollard, a U.S. intelligence analyst sentenced to life in prison after an espionage conviction.


Many Americans are under the false impression that “cave-dwelling terrorists” are too primitive to support effective intelligence operations, Earnest says. The most dangerous spies, however, are often the ones not working for recognized governments (which are bound, at least theoretically, by diplomacy and international law).

Independent terror networks have proved adept at the art of deception and intelligence gathering. The 2008 attack on Mumbai, says Earnest, “required a tremendous amount of planning as well as some relatively low-tech, but well-used, technology.” And this January, a double agent of Al Qaeda successfully infiltrated a CIA base in Afghanistan and killed seven agents in a suicide bombing, temporarily crippling America’s intelligence operations in the country.


Spying isn’t just the stuff of war and international politics. While researching his 2010 book Broker, Trader, Lawyer, Spy: The Secret World of Corporate Espionage, journalist Eamon Javers uncovered the dealings of private-sector spy firms employed by companies to detect deception in negotiators, surveil competing investors, and glean intelligence that could give them an edge in their dealmaking. Espionage has become so ubiquitous in the corporate world, Javers says, that billion-dollar merger-and-acquisition deals are almost never made these days without highly skilled spies getting involved.

Using some of the most sophisticated technology in the world (like a laser that can record conversations from a kilometer away by picking up the slightest vibrations on an office window), these firms are staffed almost entirely by former military and intelligence officials, from the U.K.’s MI5 to Russia’s KGB. The CIA even has a policy that allows its analysts to “moonlight” for major corporations. And there’s no shortage of demand. One hedge-fund executive told Javers he used corporate spies to keep tabs on the entire board of directors for every company he invested in. “There is even a whole network of people who do nothing but track corporate jets,” Javers says.

It’s not only competitors snooping around these major corporations. Both Earnest and Javers say foreign governments regularly spy on U.S. companies. “The Chinese have an extremely elaborate intelligence network aimed at penetrating defense and technology firms,” Javers says. “Every piece of technology they steal is a piece they don’t have to invent for themselves.”


The advent of the Internet transformed the private-eye industry, shifting its focus from background checks (which can now be completed for a small price on myriad Web sites) to surveillance.

Skipp Porteous, president of New York–based Sherlock Investigations, says much of his business is derived from spouses who suspect infidelity. “A lot of times we get calls from a wife whose husband is coming to New York, usually on business, and she’s afraid he’s going to fool around,” Porteous says. “So she hires us and we get the goods.” (Incidentally, Porteous says women are right in their suspicions about 90 percent of the time; when men think their wives are cheating, they’re usually wrong.)

Sherlock dispatches teams of two licensed private investigators, experts at blending into crowds and going unnoticed, to follow the suspected cheater and snap photos. In one case, a woman from Bermuda hired Sherlock to follow her husband while he was in New York. Investigators took pictures of him with six prostitutes (at once) and e-mailed them to their client before her spouse returned home.

Additionally, since the Internet has enabled people to easily purchase illegal audio and video transmitters, Sherlock has seen a boom in “bug sweep” business, especially among celebrities who believe the paparazzi have infiltrated their homes or cars. As new technologies emerge, experts expect intelligence and counterintelligence methods to grow in sophistication, and generate even more job opportunities for a new generation of supersleuths.

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