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Data Driven

How COVID-19 and cyberspace are changing spycraft


In mid-November 2019, WeChat users in China started discussing a new virus spreading in Wuhan. The words and phrases SARS, coronavirus, novel coronavirus, Feidian (the Chinese equivalent of SARS), shortness of breath, dyspnea and diarrhoea all began to increase in use across China’s most popular messaging app. As the virus spread, volunteer open-source researchers in China began collecting and archiving online material, including through GitHub, a Microsoft-owned coding and collaboration platform, to protect and preserve information at risk from China’s internet censors. Later, some of these open-source researchers, web archivists and citizen journalists would be detained, their online projects shuttered.

We will never know how many governments were monitoring and collecting these early signs of COVID-19, and we will only hear snippets about what they found. Like advice from public health agencies and diplomatic cables, intelligence provides another source of information for governments. And for those intelligence agencies that pivoted quickly as the virus spread around the world in early 2020, online open-source collection, including data scraped from Chinese social media networks, blogs and archived databases, had the potential to alert them to the seriousness of what was to come.

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