Mission Impossible Image Credit: USAAF

Mission Impossible

Spying in the age of Xi and Zoom


As the world shifts, so do intelligence practices. An intelligence analyst at her desk today worrying about the accuracy of COVID-19 data from China, the origins of a persistent cyberattack or the machinations of a terrorist group with undercover cells in half a dozen countries probably doesn’t spend a lot of time reflecting on how much easier her job would have been thirty years ago. But recent developments in geopolitics and technology, as well as a continuing terrorism threat, have been complicating the lives of Australia’s intelligence community. And these changes have occurred as the nation’s spy agencies have been emerging from the shadows, which carries the risk of any misjudgements or failures being more widely exposed.

The current intelligence era began in 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union – the culmination of a battle of intelligence that had lasted forty years. During the Cold War, long careers began and ended with the same adversary and many of the same intelligence challenges in place. In the absence of open conflict between the main protagonists – notwithstanding several proxy wars – states were determined to strengthen their intelligence capabilities, and their efforts to do so helped to reshape the international order. The United States, for instance, set up a global espionage network that leveraged its alliance relationships. The Five Eyes collaboration between the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom established intelligence collection sites around the world and took advantage of geography to split intelligence responsibilities between members.

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