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Has modern technology killed HUMINT?

Human intelligence – also known as HUMINT – essentially means information collected from and provided by a person. This is probably one of the main ways of intelligence gathering that comes to mind when most people think about espionage. However with the rise of new technology and modern attack techniques, is the ‘human’ element still something we need to worry about when it comes to technical security?

Our experts at UK NACE (the UK National Authority for Counter-Eavesdropping) dive into the topic and give us their take on where human intelligence stands today.

What is HUMINT?

Usually this is done by an agent, formally known as a ‘Covert Human Intelligence Source’. When we think of someone who does this, we most likely think of ‘espionage’ or ‘spying’.

While the motivations for why someone might spy vary, HUMINT is mainly focused on human-to-human contact rather than interception of communications or cyber operations which are far less personal and up close.

HUMINT covers a broader range of activities intended to gain access to, or influence those who use and process, sensitive non-public information.

This may involve an agent compromising a classified discussion through eavesdropping, or giving a hostile actor unauthorised access to a place they shouldn’t be. That could be to a restricted area or an off limits non-internet connected computer network.

All this could lead to major compromise. Whether that’s the theft of intellectual property, government and commercial sensitive information, personal information, or much more.

To top it all off, they might even install a covert device to continue gathering intelligence over a longer period of time. Just think about the amount of damage this could cause.

So, is HUMINT still relevant?

With businesses now heavily relying on information technology to do their work, you might think the art of human intelligence is becoming redundant. Especially with the growing number of cyber-attacks, which we all frequently hear about in the news.

However, this simply isn’t true. Increasing evidence in the public domain suggests HUMINT is more alive than ever before. There are always going to be situations where a human is needed.

Hostile actors are known to use HUMINT methods (e.g. an insider or access agent) to provide unique types of access, which aren’t possible by computer network exploitation methods. For example against an air-gapped computer, which is physically inaccessible to remote hacking via the internet.

Although we spend a significant amount of our time on electronic devices, a lot of valuable information is not processed on computers. Face to face meetings, water cooler chats and other private events can provide valuable gems of information.

With hacking stealing much of the limelight, even more traditional methods of espionage are taking place, falling under the umbrella of HUMINT.

Facilitation agents can either knowingly or unknowingly provide hostile actors with access to sensitive areas. It could be possible for these actors to tamper with or manipulate your critical systems. Whether that’s your building management controls, photocopiers, or other technical systems that you are not typically familiar with.

That way they can easily install eavesdropping devices or gather sensitive information without you even realising it.

Not just a ghost story…

HUMINT operations by their nature are covert, but there are lots of examples in real life where attempts have been uncovered. Some reveal a secret world of tools, techniques, and procedures that enable this activity.

One codenamed Operation GHOST STORIES, a ten year-long investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), exposed a spy ring operating in the United States.

These agents manipulated and manoeuvred their way through society, extracting sensitive or non-public information. Their aim was to gain influence in social or political circles and conduct technical espionage tasks.

It demonstrates just how damaging a single person can be in compromising information that is critical to national prosperity.

The future of HUMINT

There is a growing importance of science and technology in the UK’s national security. This was reinforced in the HM Government Integrated Review into ‘Global Britain in a competitive age’.

As the world continues to develop and rely on technology even more, the art of HUMINT will most likely morph and adapt to take advantage of it.

Even with the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and chat bots, ultimately in the real-world critical decisions will still continue to be made by actual people.

As such, there will always be an appetite to gather secret intelligence via human means.

A facilitation agent with the right access can enable a technical attack against sensitive IT systems which are not connected to the internet.

The art of HUMINT is very much a threat and good technical security plays an important role in countering it.

Our recommendations

  • You may consider your role to be uninteresting, but your adversary definitely doesn’t. Always be cautious and discreet when communicating about government or commercial matters
  • It’s almost certain that hostile actors will try to exploit you to gather intelligence if they see the opportunity to do so. Always be wary of who you’re talking to and your surroundings. If something feels or looks odd, it probably is
  • Don’t be lured into accidently helping someone gain access to information or systems they shouldn’t have, and be aware of others acting suspiciously or in areas where they normally aren’t

Further reading

HM Government – Global Britain in a competitive age

IISS – Human Intelligence in a Digital Age – Speech by Richard Moore

CBS News – Operation Ghost Stories

FBI – Operation Ghost Stories

Wikipedia – Illegals Program

Further links


    UK NACE is the UK’s national authority in protecting technical security, providing guidance and operational support to the UK government and Friendly Foreign Governments.

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