Defense/R&D

Coronavirus and spies: the role of security services during a pandemic

At first glance, the SARS-COV-2 coronavirus is not interesting for special services. But as it turns out, the security services are monitoring the current pandemic very carefully.

At the end of 2002, the first in the current century SARS pandemic occurred, caused by a related to the SARS-COV-2 coronavirus. That time the virus spread around the world from southern China. As a result, 800 people died. The authorities of China at first kept everything in secret. But the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND), as Die Welt later reported, received information about the situation with the spread of the virus in China a few weeks before it became officially known. Then German intelligence provided this information to the Government of Germany and the governing structures in the country’s health system.

As it became known from persons close to the special services, BND then listened to telephone conversations of the Chinese government members. German experts learned not only information about the disease from them, but also about the initial strategy of the Chinese leadership to hush up information about the virus.

US intelligence collects data on coronavirus

Similarly, according to media reports, US intelligence agencies are now doing the same. Director of National Intelligence, who governs the work of 17 US intelligence agencies, collects all the information about the coronavirus and makes it available to the White House. Secret information is available not only for the CIA, but also for the National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI), which is subordinate to US military intelligence.

To obtain information about the coronavirus, US intelligence agencies use different sources: not only official information, media, social networks, reliable online sources, but also satellite images, wiretapping, and agent information. Of course, they don’t tell about the top-priorities of their spies.

To get the most accurate picture of how the coronavirus is impacting a country, intelligence analysts are using a variety of tools, the most prominent of which are human intelligence, signals intelligence and satellite imagery. What kind of access agencies and spies have in a country will dictate what combination of tools are used.

It can be assumed that in situation of coronavirus pandemic, China and Iran are in the focus of attention of the United States. US agents in Chinese authorities or informers in Iranian healthcare system may secretly provide information on the authorities’ strategies for overcoming the crisis, unknown pathways of the virus, or the undeclared extent of the epidemic. In countries like Iran and North Korea where it’s more difficult to gather human intelligence through spies, intelligence agencies will lean harder on other tools, like signals intelligence. Critical to understanding how a country is dealing with the crisis is tapping into their conversations, a task that would fall to the National Security Agency. The prevalence of social media has made that a crucial tool for analysts using the constellation of data streams to create a fuller picture.

What do they need it for?

Intelligence and security services cannot heal the coronavirus or stop its spread. However, they can provide important information to those on whom strategic decision-making depends. Thus, it becomes possible to improve monitoring the spread of the disease, to plan measures to combat it within the country and beyond, and to strengthen security.

And, by all means, it all about using this information to reveal and assess the risks of possible economic and political damage. This also applies to fighting against disinformation campaigns, as well as to the accusations of states in spreading coronavirus pandemic.

Generally, intelligence agencies in the situation of the current pandemic are doing what they used to. They get information that no one else possess. This is especially relevant when in comes to such states as Iran and China, whose official data are not particularly credible. The closure of state borders, quarantine and many other restrictive measures being taken in the USA, Europe and Asia now significantly complicate the dissemination of information. Properly operating intelligence agencies can help in this situation.

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