Black suits. Car chases. Disguise. And poison.
These are the cliches that come to mind when we think of a spy. The high stakes, high pressure espionage characterised by decades of Cold War tension have shaped the popular imagination – complete with lashings of glamour, sex, and martinis shaken, not stirred.
Real life is more nuanced, complex and subtle. It is these curiosities that make the most recent ‘spying’ scandal at Westminster so intriguing.
The suspect in question – Chris Cash – was named by The Times earlier this September. The 28-year-old from a wealthy Edinburgh suburb was a Tory parliamentary researcher and former graduate of the University of St Andrews. He has pled his innocence but is believed to have been recruited by Beijing during a stint teaching English in mainland China.
Following the scandal, debate ensued about the balance between openness of democracy and parliamentary security. These debates are valid, and a more robust approach to security checks is likely to be welcomed.
Yet Cash was privy to no top-secret information. In fact, the ‘intelligence’ he had access to and allegedly passed on to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would largely have been accessible public information available on the UK parliament website. The closer we look, the more it appears that espionage today involves the realm of everyday life and ‘ordinary’ citizens, or the pursuit of influence from many angles.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than on the world’s largest professional networking platform, LinkedIn. In August, it was revealed that a CCP agent (who went most commonly by the name Robin Zhang) used the platform on an almost industrial scale to target unwitting British officials to reveal sensitive information.
The genius stroke here is these very modern disguises that ensure almost anyone can be fooled by slick dishonesty and deceit in our fast-paced world. Security services are the experts at protecting us from serious threats. But there are steps that anyone can take to be more alive to these types of deception.
The American author, journalist and former US Secret Service Agent Evy Poumpouras writes about this in her best-selling book Becoming Bulletproof. Her fundamental message is that we should listen more, observe more and ask more questions.
Robin Zhang’s fake profile details, for instance, were described as “vague”. This should have been an early warning for those who interacted with him. And, if it does turn out he was guilty, one commentator notes the ‘Good Chap Theory’ may have been at play in Cash’s rapid rise – that a “plausible seeming ex-public schoolboy” can climb to the top “without too many questions being asked”.
When making connections in life, it is easy to be blown away by bravado, confidence and offers that stroke our egos.
But the tales of ‘Robin Zhang’ and Chris Cash teach us that there is sometimes more than meets the eye.
So, despite the complexity and subtlety of modern espionage, it can still be thwarted if we are stirred, but not shaken, and ask more questions of people whose offers appear irresistible.
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