SIGINT Emerges From the Shadows, Part One: From Top Secret to Twitter

Signals intelligence (SIGINT) agencies sit at an inflection point. Historically clandestine organisations, they are now adopting a more publicly facing outlook. Through conference appearances, media statements and their use of social media, SIGINT agencies now regularly interact in full public view. This transition has largely come out of necessity with a shifting political and security landscape demanding adaptation. Increased public engagement therefore extends beyond just a development in PR and in fact represents a much more strategic shift — one that reflects the changing nature of modern SIGINT agencies.

Despite the importance of this transition, the process has not always been smooth. Intelligence agencies grew up allergic to the press; teething problems from such a drammatic change in posture are therefore inevitable. As SIGINT agencies open up and communicate with the public, they confront altogether new challenges previously outside their purview.

Gone are the days when spy agencies did not officially exist with their personnel and activities guarded surreptitiously away from the public view. The existence of GCHQ was only officially confirmed in the 1994 Intelligence Services Act. Meanwhile, the NSA existed for a long time outside of Congresses’ knowledge and without serious laws prohibiting its activity. Today, the public nature of these agencies has changed significantly. Canada’s Communication Security Establishment has published a cyber journal on its website since 2012. The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence has had a Tumblr account since 2014. Former NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers appeared regularly at conferences and panels. On the other side of the Atlantic, both the current and former Director’s of GCHQ have published op-eds in major British papers. The UK SIGINT agency also broke with both historical precedent and British understatement when it commented on allegations about its activities, dismissing the unhelpful allegations about the agency’s role in spying on Trump claiming that they were ‘utterly ridiculous and should be ignored’.

Intelligence agencies have of course featured in the media before. Whether allegations of torture, or suspicions over surveillance programs, these agencies have long been the target of journalistic outrage. Their culture of secrecy, combined with a tendency of playing to the edge has led to a buffer between public expectations and the actual activities of SIGINT agencies. This means that when intelligence gathering procedures are revealed (as is increasingly common via leaks), the public often feel uncomfortable. Shifting public opinion confuse matters further: electorates are naturally more supportive of enhanced intelligence gathering powers in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack when compared to five years down the line when memories of such atrocities are not quite so raw. Whilst shifting public opinion should be respected in a democracy, surveillance law and policy understandably struggles to keep up with such volatility, leading to a mismatch between the activities of intelligence agencies and public demand.

Despite a long track record of intelligence agencies appearing in headlines, previous PR strategies have been predominantly reactive — damage limitation being the name of the game . The SIGINT agencies of today, however, are proactively seeking to shape their agenda through public engagement. Despite the risks and bear traps of becoming more open, future policy must recognise and embrace the need for such a change. SIGINT agencies that remain overly covert will find themselves increasingly on the backfoot.

SIGINT agencies are becoming more publicly facing for a variety of reasons. This blog series will explore these themes, examining the emerging challenges for SIGINT agencies, how greater public engagement can help to mitigate them, as well as the new hurdles that arise from such a changes in strategy.

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