Does Human Intelligence Still Matters in the 21st Century?


By Anirudh Ramakrishna Phadke


This Paper dwells on finding whether the aspect of human intelligence still remains in the 21st century. The rapid technological advancements in the past two decades changed the dynamics of threat perception so did the landscape of security and intelligence. From using traditional methods of spying like undercover agents in enemy territories and prying eyes to today sitting in a confined space and using satellites to collect intelligence similar to what human eyes can see; the business of spying has drastically transformed into new dimension due to technological advancements. Amid these technological factors, intelligence agencies have reduced their HUMINT resources. The paper attempts to argue that HUMINT still matters even in this digital age by dwelling on US geopolitical references followed by detailed study of Indian intelligence agency and thereby ending that technology can give excellent hand over counterintelligence, but HUMINT still plays a significant role.


Rapid advancement in technology has changed the dynamics of threat perception so did the dimensions of security and intelligence aspects. From using the traditional way of spies beyond enemy lines to collecting intelligence and now the same being done sitting inside a room by using technology has significantly reduced the use of human intelligence. The technology has become so advanced that literally one can get real time updates from anywhere in the world using satellites orbiting the earth from space. Optical image reconnaissance satellites are extensively used by intelligence agencies and military to receive digital images or video of a particular location, which has helped them increase their chance of success rate in times of war or counterterrorism operations.

These satellite technologies orbiting 200 miles above the earth surface has increasingly become more powerful overtime. Travelling at speed of Mach 25, these satellites can identify anything that is five inches and above on ground followed by sending clear digital images of it to its operator. The Central Intelligence Agency have been using it for nearly thirty years to spy over missile fields in China, Russia, and its other adversaries.

These rapid technological advancements have changed the warfare dimensions, so did the collection of intelligence. Today, the concept of cyber-intelligence followed by cyber-warfare is prominent all over the globe and many countries have started spending in billions for formulating a cyber defence force. While technology has eased the collection of intelligence, it also significantly reduced the risk factors and burdens of running an intelligence agency powered by human resources. From the monarchical times till Cold War era, history has seen a lot of deadly spies as well as a lot of loss of lives due to traditional method of spying.

Given the context of rapid technological advancements which can be applied to intelligence, this paper attempts to answer the question on whether human intelligence still matters in this 21st century.

Subscribe to The Viyug Updates

Get exclusive contents and fresh perspectives on defence, geopolitics, international affairs, public policy, intelligence, strategic studies, and many more delivered to your inbox.

Human Intelligence vs Technological Intelligence

Human intelligence, often abbreviated as HUMINT, is defined as the information provided by people rather than technological instruments. The HUMINT is obtained via covert agents who operate both domestically and internationally beyond enemy lines. It is often quoted that HUMINT is a primary source of information for policymakers, political and military leaders of a nation.

In terms of technology, the foremost instrument in collecting information is by using computers which can be better termed as cyber-intelligence. The concept of cyber-intelligence can be defined as the tracking, analysing, processing, and countering digital threats. According to U.S. Naval War College, this type of intelligence is a mixture of human powered espionage followed by modern information technologies. While this statement gives us a hint of human intelligence being used till today, the real question is do their involvement really reflect any changes? Do their absence have nullified effect on intelligence collection?

Technological applications such as smart instruments and Artificial Intelligence have made the answer to the above statements much more difficult. Furthermore, new disciplines in intelligence powered by technological instruments such as Signal’s Intelligence (SIGINT), Imagery Intelligence (IMINT), Measurement and Signatures Intelligence (MASINT), and Open-Source Intelligence (OSINT) have raised the question among desk experts regarding whether Human Intelligence still matters or not.

The amalgamation of technological wonder known as Artificial Intelligence has contributed many organisations to adopt the principle of minimising the workforce and maximising output by automation process. This is applicable even to intelligence agencies since today many government organisations are powered by Artificial Intelligence thereby maximising their desired output. The US Naval War College has defined Artificial Intelligence as the human like intelligence which can perform certain human capable actions such as judgement, learning, awareness of environment, and process the desired output. Thus, in the intelligence community it can be applied to tasks such as data mining and gathering and to basic HUMINT gathering applications. It is no doubt that automation process to be integrated with these new disciplines require human resources, the question arises that by applying these techniques, whether we can replace human spies or not. To better find a solution lets analyse if OSINT analyst can be replaced by Automation or not.


Can OSINT Analyst be Replaced by Automation?

OSINT is defined as the application of tradecrafts and intelligence methods that is publicly available information where anyone can access it. Similar to any intelligence disciplines, this method also employs the concept of intelligence cycle to produce intelligence. Thus, this model too puts a weight on human resources at every stage of intelligence cycle. Not every country and situation are same including the local idiosyncrasies which are crucial component when receiving a desired intelligence output. Thus, considering all the factors including collection, assessment, objective metrics, and subjective analysis automation stands no chance to process all these parameters which are satisfied only by knowledge and experience of human resources.

Although some technological companies claim that Artificial Intelligence can indeed perform few above mentioned human tasks, there is no record of machine producing solution by analytical output. Thus, human intelligence is highly significant in OSINT analysis but where does Artificial Intelligence stand here? The automation mechanism stands to give vague or overview results by using pre-fed standard indicators such as political instability, civil unrest, terrorism data, war data, and geography etc to flash forecast risk assessment as desired output. Amalgamation of human resources and technological capabilities have been the priority for both government agencies and private entities. According to security analysts, the AI can never replace the abilities of human workforce atleast in the field of intelligence. Do HUMINT still matters?

An Ex-CIA expert has quoted that the idea of officers going undercover away from prying eyes is obsolete and the culprit for this is technological advancements. Duyane Norman who has rich twenty-seven years of intelligence career in CIA said that the era of human spies operating in foreign countries have rapidly coming to an end. He further states that the era of digital age where human lives totally depend on social media, smartphones, facial recognition technology, and even super computers have drastically affected the traditional business of spying. It has further resulted for spies difficult to maintain their disguise relationships nor false identities when operating in enemy territory.

It is no doubt that the world of espionage is facing huge technological, political, social, and commercial changes. One sect of intelligence analysts argues that those who break the old rules of spying will eventually emerge victorious. Further this shift has caused the closed government regimes to gain upper hand than their counterparts who are open regimes. This is the reason why the Western powers like US are facing hardships to spy on authoritarian regimes like China, Iran, and Russia and while it is easier for them to spy of their adversaries. The democracies are bound to many legal laws whereby it slows down the process of intelligence investigation whereas in authoritarian regimes all the parties are legally bound to share their data with the close watch of intelligence agencies. Will this technological shift push intelligence agencies to reduce their human resources?


While definitively intelligence agencies have reduced their HUMINT clandestine operations due to technology, the democracies can still leverage the potential vulnerabilities posed by authoritarian regimes in their respective nations by devising a fresh strategy which can look out for trapping possible defectors. The authoritarian regimes such as Russia, North Korea, Cuba, and China where the people have still restricted access to freedom of speech in this digital age are prone to become defectors by fleeing the country. For example, US can exploit this vulnerability with imaginative innovation to formulate new class of HUMINT strategy composing of defectors. The authoritarian regimes have a huge problem of trust and fear over its citizens. Their strict laws amid digital world have made the people prone to alienation. This can be inturn a rich fodder for democracies like the US to trap those who want to defect their homeland given they have classified information which of high interests to national security.

An independent Russian agency in its May 2021 poll has found that nearly 22 percent of Russians from all the age groups were willing to move out of Russia. Among the age group of 25-39 it stood at 33 percent while the age group 18-24 mushroomed to 44 percent. Sources from 2018 shows that nearly 67,000 people from China became lawful US’ green card holders. It was the third highest migration of a community to US after Mexico and Cuba, respectively. This data is not to prove that alienation only occurs in authoritarian regimes and not in democracies. Rather, it is show that US intelligence agencies can potentially tap this since most of the migrated people to US originate from its adversaries.

Currently the US has been entangled in lot of geopolitical tensions across the globe. For example, the Cross-Strait conflict between China, Taiwan, and the US. If China extinguishes Taiwan’s democratic identity the geopolitical consequences will be seismic for the US and its allies. So, it is necessary for the US to keep constant watch over Chinese plans for takeover of Taiwan. These matters revolve internally within the Chinese administration thus taking the intangible format, that is something which the US cannot investigate through satellites by sitting in Washington. This kind of intelligence can be obtained only through human resources. Additionally, some elements such as adversaries planning attacks on national infrastructure, ethnic repression, political assassination plots, and plots to disrupt peace stability etc needs a human spy planted inside the adversary to have a track on it. These elements are planned and executed timely without any warnings which something cannot be forecasted solely by technological means.

The above-mentioned elements are not mysteries rather it’s a secret on the concerned bodies. The answers are known to the people who work in them. Analysts says that the US’ HUMINT strategy is not well defined amid the adoption of technologies by the intelligence agencies. Not only the US but any nation which aim to tackle their adversaries in the above-mentioned elements must formulate innovative HUMINT strategy as classic spy-craft never go out of fashion.

A Peek into the Research and Analysis Wing- India’s Premier Foreign Intelligence Agency

Amid the digital age, India’s external intelligence agency known as Research and Analysis Wing still largely operates by deploying clandestine human agents beyond borders to gather intelligence on its adversaries. Their primary motive is to collect information via HUMINT through psychological warfare, sabotage, and subversion. The agency has been in forefront of collecting information regarding counterterrorism, counter-proliferation, giving inputs to policymakers, and securing India’s strategic interests.


The total number of people employed by the agency remains confidential but still various analysis shows that it primarily operates by using human resources with a total of 5000 employees as of 2013 estimate. Even it employs a huge chunk of female personnel at various stages in organisation including operational division.

The agency has done remarkable operations using HUMIT across many countries. R&AW was one of the primary agencies to provide information about Ravi Pujari who was an Indian Gangster link terror links hiding in Senegal. R&AW officers along with Senegalese authorities captured him alive and later deported back into India for court trials. Post 9/11 attacks on US, R&AW provided the intelligence to Western countries that over 120 training camps were operated by terror groups linked with 9/11 across Afghanistan and Pakistan. Back in 2017, R&AW conducted a covert joint counterterrorism operation with CIA to block a major terrorist attack on New Delhi plotted by an ISIS suicide bomber. The operation spanned across three countries in search for the suicide bomber which involved 80 research officers. Later the nabbed militant was transferred to a US airbase in Afghanistan for interrogation.

In 2020, ten operatives belonging to Ministry of State Security (MSS) from China’s Xinjiang State Security Department (XSSD) were apprehended by Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) in Kabul. Later it was found that these ten operatives were tasked with gathering intelligence related to Al-Qaeda, Taliban and plotting assassination of high-profile targets belonging to the Turkish Islamic Party (TIP). This successful counterintelligence operation was carried out by the NDS based on tipoff provided by R&AW’s……..

Read the full article from our latest publications

Available in E-book, Paperback & Hardback
Available in E-book, Paperback & Hardback

All the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. This article was originally published by the author in his book titled “Research Papers on Defence & Strategic Studies Vol. 2”. For image credit click here.

About the Author

Anirudh Phadke is the Founder/Editor of The Viyug. He holds a Master of Science (Strategic Studies) and a certificate in Terrorism Studies from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Share this article with your friends and colleagues on Twitter

Read this article titled “Does Human Intelligence Still Matters in the 21st Century?”

Follow us on Social


Published by The Viyug

Th Viyug (A Strategic & Defence Research Publication) is an digital and print media publication producing cutting edge analytical research papers, opinions, rebuttals and other forms of writings on various disciplines of international affairs.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: