Just fifteen years ago, the world of intelligence had a glamorous reputation; securing rogue nuclear weapons, disrupting criminal gangs, and of course the odd cocktail party. But use the word ‘spy’, ‘intelligence analyst’ or ‘private investigator’ today and most of us have a different set of images in our head. Thanks to the Iraq war, Wikileaks, Edward Snowdon, Abu Ghraib, drone strikes and many other examples, today’s connotations of intelligence are mostly negative. As an unofficial bellwether for the sector, the James Bond films have become noticeably darker than their 20th Century equivalents.
There’s no denying it has been a tough few years for anyone associated with the sector. In Great Britain and the United States, governments are under pressure from the media and the public to curtail electronic intelligence collection and data-mining, and continual cases of alleged rendition and wrongdoing by the intelligence services are seemingly never out of the courts. These are the same agencies who are, on a weekly basis, accused by their political masters of failing to ‘join the dots’ in predicting the rise of the Islamic State in the Middle East or preventing terrorist acts at home.
The world of corporate intelligence has equally suffered reputational damage. Large corporate intelligence firms are increasingly under the spotlight; operating a network of human sources around the world, discreetly paying highly connected individuals for inside information, deploying hackers for hire, all in order to give their clients an advantage in any negotiation. Until recently, this was all seen as fair game both by governments and corporations.
Not anymore. The enactment of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in the United States, and its regulatory cousin in the UK – the Bribery Act – have changed the landscape. Corporations must think carefully before engaging a ‘private investigator’ or ‘human source’ to uncover sensitive information. In today’s age of transparency, making a board level decision based on secret intelligence is unlikely to be acceptable to investors, shareholders or employees.
However, corporate intelligence plays a vital role in protecting the assets of our most valuable companies: warning of terrorist attacks, advising on the threat from cyberspace or the reputational risk of doing business with the wrong person. Oil and gas companies working abroad do not receive government intelligence, but they do need to understand the threats they are facing overseas. In many cases, corporate intelligence companies save lives by warning of terrorist threats and developments. Nevertheless, the industry’s reputation is not positive.
Having experienced the intelligence world in both the government and private sector, I believe it can and must change for the better. On the government side, it’s great to see agencies like GCHQ becoming more open, as seen by their video for 2014’s Poppy Appeal; and in the US, the CIA running a Twitter account.
Going far beyond Google, this new type of intelligence demonstrates that well-sourced internet data is a match for any secret human source: it’s legal, legitimate, fast and immensely powerful.
Like so many other sectors, the intelligence world needs to move with the times. Whether you are selling shampoo or software – ethics, moral judgement and reputation are the most precious commodities for any brand today. It’s about time the world’s second oldest profession updated itself for this Century.