Over the last decade, the world’s intelligence communities have faced, without a doubt, many challenges. The international environment has transformed and is far more complex than the one that shaped the intelligence services during the Cold War era.
Furthermore, the boundaries between public and private sector intelligence work are becoming increasingly blurred. Private contractors have become an essential part of the spy world. Today, intelligence officers regularly move into the private sector once they leave government. Although private sector intelligence organisations exist in most countries, the sector is by far the largest in the USA. According to a New York Times article, 70 per cent of the USA’s intelligence budget now goes to contracts with private sector intelligence companies — making it a $56 billion a year industry. 500,000 private contract workers currently have top-secret security clearance in the US alone.
A private intelligence agency (PIA) is a private sector (non-governmental) or quasi-non-government organisation devoted to the collection, analysis, and exploitation of information, through the evaluation of public sources (OSINT or Open Source INTelligence) and cooperation with other institutions. Most employees in private intelligence agencies spend many years working in intelligence in the public sector, including typical well-known agencies such as the CIA or MI6, but also military or police operations, before transferring to the private sector.
Many private firms were established by retirees from the public sector. It is now common for public sector agencies to contract out of a lot of the work they used to accomplish in-house to private consultants. The private sector can also often offer higher compensation than government jobs on average, a heady temptation to successful public sector employees.
Private agencies make their services available to governments, individual consumers and large corporations with an interest or investment in the category (e.g. crime, disease, corruption, etc.) or the region (e.g. Middle East, Vietnam, Eastern Europe, etc.) or to investigate perceived threats such as environmental groups or human rights groups.
Some private intelligence agencies use online perception management, social media influence/manipulation campaigns, strategic disinformation (such as fake news production/propaganda production), opposition research and political campaigns using social media and artificial intelligence.
Other PIAs also offer several services in the same sector with some focusing less on a ‘one stop shop’ approach in favour of specific areas of expertise such as perception management, PR, cyber security etc. The variety of PIAs currently in the marketplace is by no means exhaustible and it represents the extraordinary diversity of the jobs required. For example, some of the firms will be more focused on military matters and will have cultivated specialist expertise in those areas – others may be more focused on political manoeuvring and the development of relationships – others may be more deskbound and analytic, focused purely on data and intelligence gathering.
The private intelligence sector can also be harder to break into than public intelligence. As mentioned above, most people break into the private sector having first worked for public agencies, although there are entry-level jobs as well. Intelligence requires very specific personalities. Much, if not most, of the work is research based. These jobs will often involve some travel and an extensive amount of regional and country knowledge. It should be noted that in recent years private institutions are outsourcing key areas such as recruitment and training of personnel. The dividing lines between the state and the business world have blurred to a great extent over the past few years. It is certain that the search for talent in the intelligence sector will result in recruitment campaigns where the state and the private sector will ferociously fight for the attainment of human skills and experience.