Signs of expanded state-on-state spying by rising powers like China and India may prompt a more vigorous response from the West, provided its espionage agencies can juggle resources already strained by counter-terrorism work.
In the decade since the September 11, 2001, attacks, Western governments have devoted much energy to scouring remote tribal areas of Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia as well as increasing surveillance of their own populations.
While that will continue, experts say Western espionage agencies may look closer at the decision-making and military and cyber might of rival powers such as Russia and China, with the latter in particular seen as more assertive than ever before, Reuters reports.
Proving what is happening in such a secret world is difficult, but some ex-spies see clear shifts ahead.
“In a way, the requirement has always been there, but I think it will become more important as the new emerging powers have greater influence,” Nigel Inkster, a former assistant chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6), told Reuters.
“Some of these areas have been relatively under-populated because of the need to focus so much on transnational terrorism.”
While direct conflict between emerging powers and Western states is likely to be rare, competition — and occasional confrontation — is bound to heat up in areas ranging from currency policy to industrial espionage and cyber warfare.
Emerging powers are believed to be increasing spying on the West in a way not seen since the Cold War, targeting commercial as well as state secrets. But not without setbacks.
President Dmitry Medvedev told Russia’s once mighty spy agency on Friday to put its house in order after a spymaster betrayed a network of agents to the United States in one of Russia’s most serious intelligence failures in decades.
Fred Burton, a former U.S. counter-terrorism agent who is now vice president of political risk consultancy Stratfor, says the United States has already begun redeploying FBI resources back towards counter-espionage from anti-terrorism.
“HOSTILE FOREIGN ACTIVITY”
“It’s a huge challenge for Western intelligence services,” he said earlier this year. “For the last 10 years they’ve been focussed on counter-terrorism, Iraq and Afghanistan. Will that focus move back? I think it will. The question is how much.”
Among signs of a shift in priorities cited by experts is a November 3 Pentagon announcement that the US military’s Cyber Command, responsible for shielding 15,000 military computer networks from intruders, had become fully operational.
Another is an announcement in an October 19 British military spending review of a 650-million-pound national cyber security programme — a notable increase in spending in a priority-setting exercise that slashed spending overall.
“What the Americans and British are too polite to say is that an awful lot of the drivers for these cyber ventures come from China, whether the specific threat be China’s government or its people,” said UK intelligence analyst Richard Aldrich.