There’s a man who leads a life of danger. To everyone he meets he stays a stranger.” So says Johnny Rivers in the 1960s hit song, “Secret Agent Man.” Alas, at that time there was a sense of mystery about covert operations — jet setting into exotic places, trusting no one in a shadowy profession, and risking one’s life in situ.
But now, courtesy of Facebook, anyone can become a secret agent — what a difference digital technology makes. The social media enterprise has recently announced that its members may now use aliases. Previously, Facebook has required its members to use their real names; however, at issue are certain San Francisco based performers, drag artists in particular, who seek anonymity for protection and therefore wish to use online aliases, viewing stage names as part of their persona. While this poses a legal issue about safety and the right to privacy in certain circumstances, it also has vast implications for the intelligence profession.
With over 1.2 billion Facebook users, there is now potential for legions of self-appointed covert operatives to hide behind fake names — projecting duplicity as well as narcissism into a virtual world of espionage. “Bond, James Bond” could be among the most popular names for a certain generation — as well as “M,” Bond’s boss and head of MI6, the British secret service; “Q,” the testy armorer and source of gadgetry; and “Ernst Stavro Blofeld,” the central European chief executive of SPECTRE, Ian Fleming’s imaginary global organization committed to counter-intelligence, terrorism, revenge, and extortion. “Reilly” is yet another possible moniker to commemorate the legendary Sidney Reilly, a daring operative of the early 20th century — portrayed in the mini-series Reilly: Ace of Spies as undermining the German Reich and the Bolsheviks while working for the British. “Mata Hari” and “Casanova” could provide other forms of intimidating digital cover. And “Bourne, Jason Bourne” could be a nom de l’espionnage for younger generations.
Unsociable people and wallflowers will now be able to vicariously assume the personas of great covert operatives, enhancing their self-esteem. Imagine peering into cyberspace at a desktop computer with a vodka martini, “shaken not stirred” as is the preference of James Bond, while holstering a Walther PPK chambered for 7.65 millimeter — pretending to be a super sleuth who must save the West. Add an app for a virtual Bentley or Aston Martin DB 5, and for many, it doesn’t get any better.
A proliferation of aliases is not beyond imagination, as tens of millions of narcissists who willingly gave up their privacy ironically may rush to claim it back, conforming by not conforming to what were accepted standards of disclosure. In the same way that indulgent posturing on social media became an unrelenting fad, soon in the tradition of Hegel’s dialectic, an offsetting rush for anonymity could be in vogue.
But gone may be the days when young men and women study history and languages, gain overseas work experience, and then apply for careers in espionage in the Central Intelligence Agency. That process included a rigorous review of qualifications, a battery of interviews, an extensive background check, and a polygraph examination. The best and brightest minds were accepted, and there was adventure and honor about it — dating to the Office of Strategic Services which operated behind enemy lines during World War II — the antecedent of the CIA. Clandestine techniques known as tradecraft were inculcated, and case officers as they were called, went out into the world to protect America’s vital interests. There was a heroic aura about serving one’s country in the Directorate of Operations in Langley, Virginia, or overseas under official or non-official cover.
Thanks to social media, this fine legacy could be rendered irrelevant, as millions of men and women ensconced in their cyber ports conduct covert operations with the help of a mouse. Besides Facebook, other social media may also follow suit.
Indeed, technology can liberate man from bland routines to allow the achievement of human potential. But what you see will not be what you get.
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