Has Modern Technology Killed the Spy Thriller?

James Bond would have been rumbled by his Twitterfeed, the Jackal's Alfa-Romeo nabbed by numberplate recognition. So, asks novelist Charles Cumming, where does espionage fiction go next?

In John le Carré’s 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, an intelligence officer named Alec Leamas is thrown out of MI6, takes a job at a library, loses himself in drink and is sent to prison for assaulting a shopkeeper. When he emerges from jail, he is approached by a member of the East German intelligence service, the Abteilung, and travels to Holland, where he agrees  to work as a double agent.

Le Carré’s precision-engineered story is rightly regarded as a masterpiece, but it would have been almost impossible to construct had the author been writing in the age of the internet, or if the cold warriors of the 1960s had been armed with tablets, laptops and smartphones. Why? Because Leamas’s apparent fall from grace is an elaborate MI6 ruse. His behaviour is designed to attract the attention of the Abteilung and to make him look ripe for recruitment. An East German computer and telecommunications whizz would have analysed Leamas’s digital trail and inevitably found a flaw in his backstory.

It is no exaggeration to say that technology has transformed the spy novel as comprehensively as the discovery of fingerprinting changed the detective story. Once upon a time, spies like Alec Leamas could move across borders with ease. Passports were not biometric, photographs were not sealed under laminate, and there were no retinal scanners at airports (which, incidentally, can’t be fooled by fitting a glass eye or wearing contact lenses manufactured by ‘Q’ branch). With computers in their infancy, cover stories would stand up to considerable scrutiny. Typically, an MI6 “backstop” would sit beside a telephone in London, waiting to answer calls from suspicious officials overseas, or reply to letters requesting information about an officer’s false identity.

Nowadays, travelling “under alias” has become all but impossible. If, for example, an MI6 officer goes to Moscow and tries to pass himself off as an advertising executive, he’d better make sure that his online banking and telephone records look authentic; that his Facebook page and Twitter feeds are up to date; and that colleagues from earlier periods in his phantom career can remember him when they are contacted out of the blue by an FSB analyst who has tracked them down via LinkedIn. The moment the officer falls under suspicion, his online history will be minutely scrutinised. If the contacts book on his Gmail account looks wrong, or his text messages are out of character, his entire false identity will start to fall apart.

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