Improved technology is changing the spy game, merging once-disparate roles in the intelligence field and favoring an increased download of traditional spy roles to the private sector.
This week, Canada's Postmedia News cited a speech by Richard Fadden, the head of Canada's spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, in which he acknowledged this new reality.
"In today's information universe of WikiLeaks, the Internet and social media, there are fewer and fewer meaningful secrets for the James Bonds of the world to steal," Fadden said. "Suddenly the ability to make sense of information is as valued a skill as collecting it."
Fadden added that analysts must be well-read across various subject matters, and be creative enough to imagine threats that have yet to even be identified.
Most people think that a spy is like James Bond, Jason Bourne or Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt character from the "Mission Impossible" movies. If spy films more closely matched the average intelligence officer's reality, the most action audiences would see would be our hero dumping a venti mocha on himself while making a coffee run for his embassy colleagues.
The spies we see in movies are atypical and are more characteristic of non-official cover operatives, or NOCs, who are out there on their own without any diplomatic cover, immunity or protection, and represent a very small number of government intelligence operatives. But nothing is exploding around them, either; that's the job of the Special Forces.
As a result of Hollywood glamorization, the term "spy" has become a catch-all covering both "officers" and "agents." Here's the difference: Intelligence officers spend most of their time sitting behind a desk, often at an embassy with the benefit of diplomatic cover. The poor freelance "agent" they've managed to recruit into doing the real work, usually by manipulating that person's weaknesses -- whether it's a need for cash, ego stroke or patriotic pang -- provides the desk jockey with useful information, sometimes at great risk to himself. The agent fits the James Bond image more closely than the agency civil servant does, yet agents aren't actually employed by the spy agency. They're stringers.