As competition in the intelligence field heats up, experts tell Sam Dean old-school tactics are still best.

For a man who has spent so much of his life in the shadows, the glare of the international spotlight must feel blindingly bright to Christopher Steele.

The 52-year-old, who is believed to have compiled the now-infamous dossier that alleged Russia possesses lurid material that could be used to blackmail Donald Trump, has spent much of the new year in hiding, but will know that his work - and, indeed, his life - have been thrust on to the most global of stages.

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

It goes without saying that the industry does not revolve entirely around shady, James Bond-style figures jetting across 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.


Because 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.

But, as Steele has showed, 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, who runs Orbis Business Intelligence in London, was reportedly paid 130,000 (NZ$223,000) for the Trump dossier, a figure former intelligence professionals said was "not a surprise". This is an international, high-stakes game and it features some high-stakes players.

According to defence strategist Sven Hughes, the founder of strategic consultancy Global Influence, around 20pc 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 Hughes, who himself was trained as a high-risk security operative for 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 through 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.

A house believed to be where Christopher Steele lives in Farnham, England. Photo / AP
A house believed to be where Christopher Steele lives in Farnham, England. Photo / AP

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."

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?

Not so. Even in the world of cybersecurity, it is the classically trained operatives who pose the biggest threat. 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 from outside threats, but the slightly more old-fashioned approaches can be the most effective for eliciting information. "What I imagine will happen 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 Mr Hughes.