THE BLOG

The Privatisation of Intelligence Services and the Erosion of Security

16/09/2013 12:54 BST | Updated 14/11/2013 10:12 GMT

In the classic British comedy 'Allo 'Allo, the bumbling undercover British agent, Officer Crabtree, seemed even more ridiculous than the other characters. In order to 'fit in' within occupied France, Crabtree masqueraded as a French policeman. Or rather he believed he was masquerading - but his dreadful French accent and loud voice made him stick out like a sore thumb.

When 'Allo 'Allo was screened, it was far enough from World War Two to make it seem funny and ludicrously far-fetched. However, since the 'war on terror' began after 9/11, intelligence services have become even more farcical and inept.

One of the reasons for this is that America has led the way in contracting out large parts of its intelligence work. For a system rooted in capitalism, it no doubt seemed logical to some politicians for intelligence work to be farmed out to the commercial sector.

Many of those leading some of the numerous companies now responsible for gathering and analysing intelligence - and therefore protecting the security of the western world - have military or intelligence agency backgrounds. Indeed, these credentials have won their companies hugely lucrative contracts. Nevertheless, the privatisation of intelligence services creates massive vulnerabilities for governments and citizens.

The case of Edward Snowden became as farcical as 'Allo 'Allo for a time. Much of the media coverage of the case focused on a bizarre slow-motion cat and mouse game of Snowden being pursued ineptly by an increasingly impotent CIA. However, for me there are three more important issues.

How could a man with such a chequered history been allowed access to huge amounts of sensitive data? And, more importantly, how many Snowden-like figures are there and where are they?

The answer to the second the question is many. My own city of Cambridge has long had strong relationships with the intelligence services. Many intelligence officers have been recruited while at Cambridge University. It has only been in recent years that MI5 has recruited officers via job adverts, as well as by the traditional approach of grooming students.

Recruiting gifted idealists from ivory towers hasn't always worked out well for Britain's intelligence services. The 'Cambridge five', consisting of Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and one other man, turned out to be double agents, passing state secrets to the Russians.

The Cambridge five were recruited in the 1930s and since then a great deal has changed in how the intelligence services work. However, risk ultimately boils down to the trustworthiness of agents and how well they can contain what they know. This was easier to maintain when the work was conducted by highly-controlled military agencies, which could closely vet and monitor staff and their partners.

Since intelligence and security services have been contracted out to vast numbers of commercial companies, it has become nigh on impossible to monitor who is saying what to who. We have therefore gone from a position where a few spies turn out to be double agents, to one where we have thousands of Officer Crabtrees blundering around loudly.

In Cambridge these days, intelligence operatives are no longer just discreetly interacting over vintage port at Trinity College. They are as likely to be people not dissimilar to Snowden, working as intelligence analysts for private companies in the vicinity. One doesn't have to be a spy to identify them.

A friend recently encouraged me to listen to the conversation on another table in a busy pub not far from Kings College. I was intrigued to hear a loud 30-something American man regaling a young student with tales of his work on behalf of the American government, but within a commercial company. My lunch companion knew to listen in because she had heard the indiscreet agent - let's called him Crabtree Snowden - try the same approach on another young student days before. The student of course subsequently told her friends that she was chatted up by an "American spy".

Edward Snowden gave away state secrets because he believed the public should know what the American government does in its name. Due to the privatisation of intelligence services, there are many more people out there with sensitive data who could be persuaded to part with it by nothing more than a smile from a pretty face or one too many pints of beer.

For those who believe in transparency, this may seem like a good thing. However, it may only be a matter of time before information gets into the wrong hands.