Confessions of a private spy

I work for a private intel firm. Here is what my life is like.

GCHQ graffiti
'I'm a walking recording device,' writes Chase [Reuters/Eddie Keogh]

Every client, every target

“Here’s the brief. Company A has hired an intel firm to spy on Company B. Company B is our client. We know who the spies are, and our task is to discover the identity of Company A.”

Run of the mill so far, so I give a bored nod and take a languid drag on my cigarette.

“It’s not going to be easy. They’re a tight-knit outfit. There’s barely any information about their MO [modus operandi] or the type of clients they work for, but we’ve got a list of all their employees, which is a start. I’ll WhatsApp it to you now, and you can get to work.”

I ask an obvious question, and I get an obvious answer. Force of habit, but a waste of time as ever.

“Who’s the client then?”

Guy arches his eyebrow, tilts his head back with a sneer.

“If you needed to know, I’d have already told you”

I can’t be bothered to argue, couldn’t care less anyway, so I give a fake pout and act hurt. He likes hierarchy, so it doesn’t hurt to stroke his ego.

That’s the problem with this job – there is nothing that excites me so much, but nothing that turns me off like the chain of command. I love the sin but hate the sinners.

Two months later I’m frantically dialling Guy. I can’t wait to bask in his praise, like a puppy bounding back to his owner with the stick clamped proudly between his jaws.

Guy picks up on the tenth ring. He probably enjoys making me wait, but today I don’t care.

“Guy, Guy, you won’t believe what she told me, seriously man, it’s gold …”

I’m rattling off my words like a gatling gun. Guy already knows it is mission complete from the tone of my voice and the tremor in my throat.

“So, hit me with it, soldier!”

And I do, delivering all the information spilled by my source at the rival spy firm. Eight weeks of grade-A grooming, and she’s ended up reading me a list of every client they work for and every target. At first, Guy is nonplussed.

“Don’t be stupid, she’d never give you that list – she’d be suicidal if she did.”

In theory, he’s right – if anyone in our mob was that loose-lipped, there would be hell to pay and hearses to arrange – but in practice, he’s wrong. She really did, and he’s elated.

He doesn’t stop me when I get to the name of our client. He sticks faithfully to the need-to-know principle when it comes to the rank and file like me.

But once I read out to him the full list, he confirms our success with a rare show of appreciation.

“I don’t know what you did to get her to sing like that, and I’d probably rather not know either, but that’s a serious score – the client will love that.”

Of course they will. Not only is the case cracked, but infiltrating a rival outfit also makes us look very good indeed, and promotes our reputation into the Premier League.

I pour a full glass of scotch and down it, job is done and my 100 percent strike rate still intact.

Fleeting sympathy for my prey? That disappears in a flash. It’s a zero-sum game we are playing here. Dog eat dog and spy eat spy.

This is the key to it all: You’ve got to be a natural-born liar. You can’t learn to lie, you’ll always trip up, and in bandit country that’s a risk your firm simply cannot afford to take.

The problem is that if lying is in your blood, then so is suspicion and paranoia. It has to be.

The hypocrisy of Twitter outrage

It still amazes me how upset people get about the footage and the tapes. I know it is hard to get perspective when this is how I live, day in, day out, but the hypocrisy is staggering.

We don’t mind replacing verbal communication with written WhatsApp and Messenger chats – our thoughts and dialogue forever imprinted on phones, servers and in the ether where they can be accessed by a third party – but the minute someone knows you recorded your call with them, it’s like you filmed them in the shower. 

“But I don’t consent to you recording my calls, so you can’t!” they exclaim. Sure, you don’t, but yes, I can. UK law requires one-party consent, and I consent, so that’s me covered from a legal perspective.

Likewise, clandestine filming – sure, if I disseminate the footage to others, there could be a legal issue, but what difference does it make if I use my spy pen as an aide memoir, when drinks, drugs or distractions might impair my ability to remember a key fact to crack a case. 

In my mind, if I was there, I was given permission to record. Thanks to modern technology, now I can outsource responsibility to the HD spy pen happily perched in my top pocket.

We readily consent to the security agencies using hi-tech surveillance and various ways to spy on individuals for the greater good of “public safety and security”.

And yet, when it’s revealed these same methods are used by private companies, Twitter is aflame with hate, Facebook seethes with scorn. And, as ever, the ire is usually more about the context than the content.

If actress Rose McGowan had hired spies to gather evidence proving she was assaulted by Harvey Weinstein, what would the reaction have been?

Of course, Weinstein hired Black Cube – an organisation staffed by ex-Mossad operatives and a favoured plaything of some of the less savoury individuals stalking the planet – to spy on McGowan.

That he did so speaks volumes about what’s wrong with the power structure in our society. But Black Cube, and their peers, become soft targets in the frenetic dash to point the finger of blame.

Of course, there’s one rule for the rich and one for the rest and that is not a sign of a healthy global state of play, but the law is still the law.

It might seem unfair that the wealthy can arm themselves with the A-list lawyers and investigators, but there is nothing illegal about hiring Black Cube, Kroll or K2, no matter who you are and how questionable your reputation is. 

The recent uproar over Harvard dean Ronald Sullivan joining Weinstein’s legal team is a case in point.

One junior at Harvard, where Sullivan is employed, summed up what he sees as the problem: “I understand his job is a criminal defense attorney, but also his job is faculty dean … it gives the idea that they aren’t taking sexual violence seriously.”

Ergo, if you believe in trial by Twitter and have scant regard for adherence to due process, then in your opinion, Weinstein should not have the right to appoint a lawyer of his choosing. And he should not have the right to hire litigation support – whether in the form of Black Cube or any other firm assisting his lawyers in preparing the defence.

It’s an interesting interpretation of an individual’s rights but belongs more in the McCarthy era than in the 21st century. Should that junior ever find himself accused of similar acts, you can be sure he’d want as robust a defence team as his means would allow.

Which is why I have no qualms about being involved in the corporate intelligence sector.

The Uber of spies

Once you have been immersed in the shadows long enough, you adapt to survive, and to emerge blinking into the harsh light of the civilian world is often a trying task. There is no one I can discuss the job with other than a tiny pool of colleagues. I can’t talk about the stress with my partner, friends or family, any more than I could idly engage a stranger in small talk about it down at my local pub.

Which is fine, but it is quite a load to bear alone, especially when the going gets tough – as it regularly does. I love the fact that if you saw me walking down the street, you would have no idea who I was. And why should you? That’s the point – but it also makes it a very solitary existence.

In moments of clarity – moments where you realise quite how deep into the vortex you have been sucked – there is a realisation that this is a wild way to live. I’m a walking recording device; I tape all calls, film all meetings, download all WhatsApp chats – The Entire History Of You might be just another episode of Black Mirror to the general public, but to me, it’s way more fact than fiction.

You lose track of how detached from reality your world has become. When the FBI called me out of the blue late at night one balmy Monday in June, as part of their investigation into a story making waves around the world, my nonchalance was on par with getting a call from the dry cleaners. 

When Microsoft wrote to me last week informing me they had complied with a secret court order to search my email account, my heart stayed as steady as if I had just been sent a reminder to renew my Office subscription.

These things come with the territory, and once you’ve done it long enough and hard enough, you become inured to the madness, the risks. You treat it all as mundane, though you know it’s anything but. Likewise, for our clients.

Journalist Ronan Farrow called Weinstein’s investigators an “army of spies”, but the “Uber of spies” would have been more accurate.

Thanks to the proliferation of intelligence firms and the tools they use, anyone who can afford it can order spies like booking a cab.

Picture an Uber map showing all the cars bowling merrily along the streets near you, that’s how simple it has become in the private intel space. Dispute over mining rights in Congo? Book us, and we’ll have a team out by tonight, locked, loaded and ready to go!

It’s better to travel than arrive, as the saying goes in the stock market, and that’s the same in private intelligence. The excitement, the subterfuge, the outwitting is a massive thrill, a drug-like rush that keeps you going round the clock. 

But the fear of being caught, of counter-surveillance, is ever-present. So is being fed false information to throw you off the scent. This often distorts reality to a huge degree, putting you under serious pressure.

Out for lunch with a fellow employee, her eyes suddenly dart to the left, her face screwed up in suspicion at something behind me. I begin to turn my head, but she hisses “look at me, not him”, so I swing back around.

“He’s not studying the menu board, he’s listening to us”, she declares. “Let’s act like we’re done and get ready to leave – but not in a rush, don’t make out like we’ve clocked him.”

Fine by me, because I haven’t. But that’s the problem with this world – you can get so nervous, that you are on a hair-trigger of paranoia.

The problem is, if you don’t stay alert, you run the risk of letting your guard down, and none of us is so arrogant to think we’re above getting outwitted by someone more skilled in the dark arts.

Go too far down the rabbit hole, and you’re never coming out. I’ve seen plenty of workers in the field lose all perspective and end up quitting because they can’t deal with the drama any more.

The illusion of privacy

My way of coping is to believe privacy no longer exists because it doesn’t, so why kid myself? I follow all the infant school advice – look both ways when you cross the road, don’t take sweets from strangers, and all the rest – but why get flustered about what’s out of my hands? 

Every investigative journalist I deal with who talks about encryption just makes me laugh and feel sorry for them in equal measure.

“Only use Signal with me please, I don’t trust WhatsApp”; “Don’t Signal me, I only use Wickr”; “Here’s my global key if you want to send me documents securely.”

My favourite line was spoken proudly by a friend at a major news network who had just come back from an away-day on tech security: “There were 300 of us there, and they brought this guy in who taught us everything we need to know to keep all our communications secure.” 

Oh yeah? Ever wondered who your teacher is really working for? All this faux security talk is designed purely to make people feel better about a situation they cannot control. If the wrong people want into your phone, your computer, your dining room, they’re coming in no matter what. Israeli private intel outfit NSO Group Technologies is the case in point.

Once NSO spyware infects your device, encrypted WhatsApp or Wickr messages lose all protection. The spy is in your phone, not your app. As you type, they watch the words form on their cloned version of your screen.

When Facetime can be hacked by Joe Public to turn it into a recording device, you know the game is up. Every app has a back door, so smile, you’re on candid camera, and there’s no point pretending otherwise.

The very same recording devices we used to use with impunity are now being deployed against us.

Tables are turning, and it’s going to do serious damage to our human intelligence (HUMINT) capabilities. The recent sting by AP journalists and CitizenLab exposing agents spying on a cybersecurity watchdog is one of many such operations over the last twelve months, and in each case, the agent exposed will struggle to ever work again, at least in the field.

A suspicious target turns up to a meeting with an agent like me, and just as I am filming surreptitiously, so are they. At the first opportunity, they can tweet my image around the globe, and then it’s open season on discovering my identity, who I work for, and ultimately the end client. 

And good luck to them. They’ve found the Achilles heel, and it was about time too – from their perspective. NGO workers, investigative journalists, dissidents – they need protection more than most, and now that they’re putting this tech to good use, they’re fighting back in style.

No such thing as an ex-spy 

But the public refuses to catch up. Shock! Ex-Mossad and MI6 operatives set up their own firms once they swap the public sector for the private. Horror! Ex-NSA staff go to work as hackers for the United Arab Emirates government. But what did you expect?

Did you really think the state would train people to spy, give them with the most advanced espionage skills around, and then prevent them from forging a career once they leave official service?

Again, unless laws are being broken in the process, then offering your services to the highest bidder is perfectly kosher.

Corporate intelligence is about far more than spying. The network of journalists engaged to disseminate news useful to a client and/or damaging to their rivals thrives off their relationship with the agents.

Strategically timed and placed articles can have a devastating effect, in both the business and political spheres. The media will turn a blind eye if the story is juicy enough and the projected hit-count high enough.

The number of politicians and their staff employing firms like mine is staggering, but they are kept conveniently at arm’s length in case the operations are ever exposed.

Then come the bounty hunters: private companies who bid for mandates to trace and recover assets involved in conspiracies and fraud. The Department of Justice hands out contracts to such entities, offering generous double-digit percentages of whatever they recover. 

Most important of all, firms like mine – as should be obvious, but seemingly isn’t – are far less private sector than they appear. Ex-MI6, Ex-NSA, Ex-Mossad … well, if you believe there is such thing as an ex-spy, then I hope I get you as a target for my next mission.

Take Black Cube as an example: The list of their operations revealed include several in lockstep with Israeli foreign policy: helping smear campaign against George Soros to help key ally Viktor Orban in Hungary; assisting Donald Trump by spying on Obama officials to undermine the credibility of the Iran deal; working with Cambridge Analytica to assist the opponent of the Muslim presidential candidate in Nigeria.

And even in the non-political cases, all of these intel firms have an interest in handing over to the state any useful information they uncover during operations. You scratch my back, and I’ll let you continue to operate, unregulated, uncensored, unchecked and make a fortune while you’re at it. Plausible deniability in a nutshell.

A firm which presents itself as private can penetrate places a state outfit would find far harder to reach. “Hi, it’s Mossad, we heard you have some trouble with a rival oil company in Libya” isn’t the ideal opening line. But replace Mossad with Black Cube, and you’re in.

Ultimately, the beat goes on, despite all the hand-wringing that follows every expose of one spy firm or another, whether in the human, hardware, software or data analysis sub-sector.

As Philip Hickson wrote in the wonderfully-outdated and archaic Industrial Counter Espionage (it was published in 1968, to be fair): “Espionage has always been with us. Man, insatiably curious, has always wanted to know what the other fellow is doing.”

Technological advances have sent curiosity levels soaring – we can seek information from anywhere on Earth in a flash, thanks to the internet, and we can also delve far deeper, with cameras, recording devices and hacking tools available as freely as light bulbs.

For my part, I’ll go on doing it till ennui sets in. But that won’t happen anytime soon. To hijack the anti-war slogan, I get to go to exotic places, meet exotic people, and spy on them; hotel suites in Moscow, sleazy bars in Panama, beaches in Nice, bank vaults in New York.

It’s like a high-end gap year, all expenses paid as long as you don’t mind pressing “record” every now and then. And don’t lose your phone. Ever. A Baltic government stands or falls on the strength of your ability to not leave your mobile in the back of an Uber when you’re drunk. Just because the wrong people can get inside it anyway doesn’t mean you should hand it to them on a silver platter.

Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do and spy.

Stefan Chase is not the real name of the author. He writes under an alias for fear of losing his job and safety.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.