When MI5 joined Instagram in late April the spy agency’s fans and followers were shaken, but not stirred.
“Ahh MI5. We’ve been expecting you,” greeted @youhadme_athashtag.
“How does it feel to be followed yourselves?” asked one of the 100,000 Instagramers tracking MI5 within days of its debut.
“Ain’t the point of being the secret service to be, uno, secret?” added @harrisonraw_. “Russia’s gonna be having a field day with this account.”
It’s a fair point. Transparency is a double-edged sword. While spy agencies use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and various other platforms to spy on citizens, the professional ‘watchers’ are now being closely monitored themselves. So what secrets are they revealing?
1. Spies really do use Q-type gadgets
Mossad’s Facebook page dazzles us with drones, hacking, and electronic lock-pickers but video of a female 'spy' who wears contact lenses with built-in facial recognition takes center stage. There’s more tech wizardry promised on Mossad’s Instagram page but for the most part Israeli spies - like their US and UK counterparts - keep the specifics to themselves.
2. The view from HQ can be sky-high
“This is the view our staff see as they enter MI5 HQ in Thames House, London. Behind these pods lie some of the UK’s best-kept secrets,” MI5, Britain’s domestic spy agency, revealed in its first Instagram post. Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) has also teased spy-watchers with video from inside its archives while the CIA’s YouTube video offers a peek inside Langley HQ and the CIA museum.
3. ‘Green spying’ is a new trend
The CIA is tracking environmental data on climate, air pollutants, major infectious diseases, food security, waste, and recycling for the CIA World Factbook but it is not saying what else the agency is doing with the intel. Britain’s MI6 is also ‘green spying’ to ensure countries uphold climate change commitments, Richard Moore, head of Britain’s international spy agency MI6, told Times Radio on YouTube. Does that mean spies covertly monitor factory emissions from nearby fields? “I’m loving the image,” Moore responded coyly. “But I am not sure that is quite what we are doing.”
4. What spy agencies don’t post
IC On The Record, the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s Tumblr account and website, is the central repository for declassified documents. IC On The Record offers Q&As with intelligence officials and access to speeches, testimony, and national security reports. It’s a goldmine of intel but journalists and others with an eye on IC On The Record also track what the US isn’t posting. Sometimes less is more.
5. Spy work
Sure, the agencies use social media and websites for propaganda and to soften their image (have you met the CIA’s Spy Dogs?), but posts also open a window into real-life spy work. Curious candidates can meet a CIA librarian, find out what it’s like to run a Moscow asset, or read about how Britain’s GCHQ analysts catch terrorists.
6. Spies have a sense of humor
When the CIA joined Twitter in 2014 the agency's first Tweet set the tone: 'We can neither confirm nor deny this is our first Tweet.' Even Mossad likes to keep it light sometimes. When Israel’s spies advertised for a field operative in 2017, they described the right candidate as an ‘optimistic and spontaneous person with a sense of humor’. (Or maybe that was an inside joke?)
7. The FBI runs more than 70 social media sites
It seems the FBI is too busy jumping out of airplanes and rappelling down walls to make jokes. The Bureau’s social media accounts - more than 70 of them - tick along with Tweets about cases, arrests, and warnings about cyber attacks, identity theft, and other crimes. The FBI shows its human side on Instagram, however, featuring nature photos taken by agents, while its YouTube channel mixes recruitment with videos about physical challenges and life at FBI’s HQ near Quantico, Virginia.
8. Canada’s CSE came in from the cold in 2020
The Communications Security Establishment (CSE), the Canadian spy agency that looks after electronic communications, operated in the shadows for 75 years before releasing its first annual report online in 2020. It’s a treasure trove of interesting stats. In 2019-2020 - during a period when Canada held a federal election - CSE blocked ‘well over a billion malicious actions aimed every day at federal systems’. CSE’s LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube accounts are a less-revealing - but still very interesting - mix of security tips, recruitment pitches, and historical memories.
9. ‘Sparkies’ and ‘chippies’ work as Australian spies
Paul Symon, director-general of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) has a now-locked Twitter account exposing his weakness for poetry, Adele, and Carlton Football Club. Symon - the only ASIS spy who can be named - came out of the shadows for a 2019 podcast and 2020 YouTube interview where he revealed that ASIS hires a relatively small number of university recruits. The rest are technologists, data scientists, data engineers, ‘sparkies’ (electricians), ‘chippies’ (carpenters), locksmiths, and loads of former lawyers. What does ASIS look for in recruits? People who don’t need to brag about their work.
10. Intelligence agencies are wary about posting
University of Colorado researcher Michael Landon-Murray studied Facebook and Twitter posts from the CIA, NSA, the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, the US Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in 2015. He found that only 12 percent of social media content involved actual spy work. Most posts discussed historical events, awards, PR, and recruitment. “This is not to say substantive information was absent altogether,” Landon-Murray said. “For example, following the Senate’s report on CIA practices in the war on terror, the CIA responded by repeatedly posting statements relating to the charges.” So keep following your favorite accounts, but you may need to pan for gold.