An existential crisis and a golden opportunity? Assessing hard-target espionage in the cyber era

  • Kyle Sean Cunliffe

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Cyberspace is transforming global society. Its effects on states, intelligence, and national security are the subject of much comment, but its relationship with espionage, or human intelligence, remains under-researched to an alarming degree. At a time when the British-US intelligence community is making headway in cyberspace, necessitated by emerging threats and rising nation-state agendas, this is a glaring omission. The strategic imperatives of Russia and China have provoked a reorientation by the British SIS and the US CIA, turning resources back towards nation-state ‘hard targets’. Yet these hard target states are investing resources in innovative surveillance practices, tools that fundamentally threaten intelligence officers’ ability to travel freely or acquire the increasingly important human sources (agents) of espionage. As the operations of British-US intelligence personnel become more threatened in physical terms, espionage agencies now focus their attention towards cyberspace, where innovation opens up new opportunities in tradecraft. By turning to cyberspace to conduct tradecraft, particularly in the recruitment and handling of spies, espionage’s success and failure is now entwined with the value of innovation, and as consequence, cyber-enabled tradecraft is entwined with the present and future of Western security. However, the value of cyberspace to espionage’s sources and methods remains ambiguous, receiving only limited study. Views put forward by a small cadre of mostly seasoned practitioners, express both powerful enthusiasm and debilitating cynicism, reflecting a dichotomy of opinions that have not yet been addressed. No one has yet sought to fully determine the value of cyberspace to espionage when conducted against a hard-target state, where the Internet is subject to the full weight of counterintelligence. This thesis therefore explores the merits of cyberspace to espionage tradecraft, in the context of its value applied toward Russia and China. It uses Cold War history as a basis for drawing abductive hypotheses, turning to the first era of major innovation in espionage affairs, the mid-Cold War period, for guidance in understanding the present period of innovation. In turn, it will explore how this overt technology, used for covert means, carries significant limitations to the purposes of spying, specifically due to technology’s relationship with human behaviour, thus incurring wider consequences for the future of intelligence collection, and concurrently, national security
Date of Award2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Aberystwyth University
SupervisorR Gerald Hughes (Supervisor) & Patrick Finney (Supervisor)

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