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TematicheCyber e TechThe intelligence sharing revolution and its impact on the...

The intelligence sharing revolution and its impact on the war in Ukraine

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One of the most significant transformations in the intelligence community in the post-Cold War era is undoubtedly the increased importance attributed to the so-called “intelligence sharing”, an expression that refers to the ways in which agencies and other security services of two or more countries work together. This cooperation can take different forms, and is playing an absolutely crucial role in the current war in Ukraine.

International intelligence cooperation: a quick overview

For decades, Western intelligence agencies were primarily focused on preventing the Soviet Union from extending its own sphere of influence. This partially explains why they were completely unable to foresee attacks such as the one that resulted in the tearing down of the Twin Towers on 9/11. The non-conventional threat posed by international terrorism played a key role in the evolutionary process of the intelligence community, heavily stressing the importance of having access to expertise all over the world, obtaining more reliable data and identifying potential threats to national (and international) security in advance. Consequently, agencies increasingly relied not only on more sophisticated technology and stricter controls over passports, but also on the sharing of part of the information at their disposal with foreign services.

There are several examples of cooperation in the intelligence field. The United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zeland, and Australia (the so-called “5 eyes”) are part of a formidable intelligence network known as ECHELON. The Club de Berne is an informal intelligence sharing forum established by Federico Umberto D’Amato, for many years the mastermind of the Reserved Affairs Office of the Italian Ministry of the Interior (and post-mortem indicted for the massacre at the Bologna station on August 2,1980). It’s a very interesting case because it reunites the directors of the major Western security and intelligence services: not only the 27 countries members of the European Union (EU), but also Switzerland and Norway. In the case of the EU we can also consider as intelligence sharing bodies EUROPOL (based in the Hague, its primary aim is to enhance cooperation mechanisms of member states for what concerns the fight against organized crime, cyberthreats and terrorism), the European External Action Service (that coordinates foreign ministries and European intelligence agencies) and FRONTEX (responsible for information exchange between EU members, as well as border surveillance).

Intelligence and technology: the case of Ukraine

In the context of the war in Ukraine, intelligence sharing is definitely a critical element to consider. The US intelligence community obtained information about a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine weeks before it actually occurred, revealing it to the media: thanks to that, it was able to quickly coordinate with its Western allies and effectively support the Sluzhba Bespeky Ukrayiny (SBU, the Ukranian secret service) during the initial phase of the conflict. When it became evident that the “special military operation” lunched by Moscow was going to become more like a war of attrition, Western support increased: monitoring on-the-ground daily events, identifying military targets and defending digital systems, and critical infrastructures from cyberattacks are all good examples of this.

None of these goals could have been achieved without a close partnership among intelligence services worldwide, including those from the private sector. For example, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has massively contributed to strengthening the Ukrainian defence capabilities thanks to Starlink, a system made of thousands of satellites necessary to control the vast amount of long-range drones used to carry out not only defensive actions, but also offensive ones (consider, for example, the recent unmanned aerial vehicles used in the attempt to hit the Kremlin). More in general, one of the most surprising trends of the war in Ukraine is the massive use of dual-use platforms, originally designed for civilian purposes but potentially capable of performing military tasks (or viceversa): they’re usually owned by private companies or multinationals, not governments. This without considering the role played by Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), collected by means of Internet, mass media, geospatial stations, even public documents and official statements. An interesting case at this regard is the one represented by the so-called milbloggers, civilians particularly active on social media like Telegram who act as war reporters. Thanks to the details of various videos and images posted online, Western intelligence agencies were able to correctly identify and destroy Russian military bases, trace the movement of the Wagner Group and better organize Ukrainian counteroffensives. Finally, it’s worth noting that volunteer analysts also widely contributed to monitor the situation: it’s the case of the investigative group known as Bellingcat, that played a crucial role in identifying Maria Adela Kuhfeldt Rivera, a Russian spy that was able to infiltrate into NATO’s military base in Naples.

Conclusions

Intelligence sharing has drastically changed not only the data gathering process, but also the tactics employed on the battleground. The very success of the Ukrainian military heavily depends on the degree of support that the Western world will continue to provide, and much of it comes in the form of weapons and information obtained by means of satellites, drones, digital platforms and other emerging technologies. Thus, coordination among allied intelligence agencies is not only essential to support Kyev, but it’s also likely to improve in the near future. A particularly relevant aspect to consider is the increasing importance of non-state actors and the private sector. Intelligence agencies can greatly benefit from the resources deriving from data sharing, but at the same time this enhanced cooperation poses significant doubts and questions. We’ll see how the process of privatization of security, that is to say the possibility to employ privates as foreign policy proxies, will affect the security environment and, particularly, the intelligence sector.

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