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New year new job? Try a spy.

Christopher Steele had spent his life lurking in the shadows, but now he has been blinded by the spotlight of international media.

The 52-year-old, is believed to have compiled the dossier that alleged Russia possesses lurid material that could be used to blackmail Donald Trump. He has now spent much of the new year in hiding, but knows that his work and life have now been thrust onto the global stage.

As has his industry. A former MI6 spy, who founded his own intelligence company upon leaving public service, Mr Steele is one of many former spooks who have decided to put their skills to use in the private sector.

By its very nature, the “intelligence” industry is a secretive one. What we do know, though, is that it is thriving – at least in terms of the numbers of companies providing these services. More and more agencies are springing up, creating a market that is both growing and increasingly competitive.  

Of course, the industry does not revolve entirely around shady, James Bond-style figures jetting around the world. The bulk of the intelligence business is focused on due diligence services, or providing companies with strategic insight, opposition research or risk analysis.

There is plenty of that kind of work going and the day job is rarely as exciting as young graduates who join these companies might expect on their first day at work.

Among the big intelligence firms are companies like Alaco, Control Risks, GPW and K2 Intelligence. According to research firm Gartner, the worldwide industry is expected to make around $20bn (£15.87bn) in revenue this year.

As the barriers for entry are so low, anyone can set up shop and claim to be an expert. There is no regulation and the increased competition has driven prices down. A string of major companies now carry out their intelligence work in-house, and the industry is becoming fractured.

That is not to say it is struggling, but it marks a step down from the days of the early Noughties, when the events of 9/11 created a sudden demand for security and risk analysis both at home and in the Middle East.  

As Mr Steele has shown, the high-end, glamorous side of intelligence can be just as exciting and dangerous in the private intelligence business as it is with MI6 or the CIA.

Steele was reportedly paid £130,000 for the Trump dossier, a figure that former intelligence professionals said was “not a surprise”. More than 3,500 miles separate Mr Steele’s home in Surrey from Washington DC, and there are a further 1,800 between Surrey and Moscow. This is an international, high-stakes game and it features some very international, high-stakes players.

According to defence strategist, Sven Hughes, the founder of strategic consultancy, Global Influence, around 20% of the intelligence industry is taken up by people who are trained in surveillance operations, or come from backgrounds in the security services.

“Former intelligence agency people sit very comfortably in that area,” says Mr Hughes, who himself was trained as a high-risk security operative in private sector work. These companies are largely very discreet, he says, and often do not have anything more than a one-page website.

They get their business through word of mouth and recommendation. Law firms and investment firms, eager to leave no stone unturned, are regular clients, while they can also be used on a more political stage.

“If, for example, a region is being influenced by terrorism, and companies – either local or international – do not feel as though a government is doing enough to undermine or disenfranchise the terrorist, that would be the kind of application where some of these companies might be hired to find out where the finance streams are coming from, or if any politicians could be in their employ,” says Hughes.

“Then they can approach those individuals or offer them incentives to reconsider the benefits of fair and honest business.”

Eric O’Neill, national security strategist at US firm Carbon Black, is a former FBI counterintelligence operative whose role in uncovering an agent spying for the Soviet Union was the true story behind the 2007 film, Breach. He also runs Georgetown Group, a private investigations firm.

“We limit our clients,” he says of Georgetown Group, “and we are not trying to grow very big. We have some very key clients who have some issues they don’t know how to solve, and we go figure it out for them.

“We do a lot of that private investigative security work, and I work for a few energy companies who are very concerned about their security, say, in Mexico. One thing I am looking at is cartels; gathering intelligence on who they are, where they are operating, right down to the sort of tattoos they have and the clothes they wear, just so we are aware of where they are and can avoid them.”

The seemingly obvious counterpoint to all this is that, in the modern digital world, how much need for the old-school methods can there be? Surely everything can be done by office-based nerds trawling the web?

Apparently not. Even in the world of cybersecurity, it is the classically trained operatives who pose the biggest threat. Mr O’Neill says: “We have to stop worrying about hackers and start worrying more about spies; traditionally trained intelligence officers or groups.”

Companies are getting better at defending their secrets and systems from outside threats, but the slightly more old-fashioned approaches can be the most effective for eliciting information.

“What I imagine will happen in the medium term is that everyone will be so myopic on the new technology angle that they will forget about the influence of good old-school intelligence gathering,” says Hughes.

“There will be a rush to reinforce the success of online and then, six to 12 months after, there will be some counterweighting as people realise the indiscreet comment in a bar can sometimes be more effective.”

So, as these new intelligence companies take on board their young, tech-savvy staff, they may actually be turning away from the direction the industry is moving.

The more focus there is on the web, the more valuable old-school intelligence gathering becomes. The future looks a lot like the past, it seems.

Count me in.

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