The eco­nom­ics of es­pi­onage

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

If you wanted to in­fil­trate a Western econ­omy, where would you place your agents? Mi­crosoft and Bar­clays don’t make much sense. The Rus­sian spy ring that was un­cov­ered in the United States last month chose those two com­pa­nies as their tar­gets. The suc­ces­sors to the KGB clearly don’t have a clue about how the mod­ern econ­omy works.

The story of how Rus­sian agents bur­rowed into or­di­nary com­mu­ni­ties has kept the world en­thralled for weeks. At least two had found their way into im­por­tant busi­nesses. It re­cently emerged that a 12th mem­ber of the group worked as a soft­ware tester for Mi­crosoft. Ear­lier, we learned that Anna Chap­man, when she wasn’t mak­ing sure there were plenty of pic­tures of her­self in lin­gerie ready to fill the news­pa­pers and blogs af­ter her even­tual cap­ture, worked for Bar­clays in London.

Now we know why Pow­erPoint takes so long to load up, and usu­ally puts your graph up­side down on the screen: It’s a plot by Rus­sian Prime Min­is­ter Vladimir Putin to make ev­ery mid­dle-rank­ing ex­ec­u­tive die of em­bar­rass­ment.

Rus­sia was go­ing af­ter the wrong guys. Mi­crosoft is a big lum­ber­ing beast of a com­pany that seems to have for­got­ten why it ex­ists. Bar­clays is a re­tail Bri­tish bank that was lucky to sur­vive the credit crunch, and while it may be ex­pand­ing its in­vest­ment bank­ing, it isn’t at the cut­ting edge of any­thing.

If you re­ally want to go un­der­cover in the global econ­omy, and ma­nip­u­late it to your own ends, here’s where to go:

Gold­man Sachs: The U.S. in­vest­ment bank is on the in­side of ev­ery deal. It is ahead of most trends. And its alumni net­work is the most pow­er­ful in the world. In­fil­trate it suc­cess­fully, and within a cou­ple of decades you should have one of your spies run­ning at least one of the ma­jor cen­tral banks, and prob­a­bly a fi­nance min­istry or two.

Har­vard Busi­ness School: Get one of your agents in­stalled at the world’s most in­flu­en­tial cen­ter of learn­ing and you can wreak havoc for years. Teach a whole gen­er­a­tion of bright and am­bi­tious stu­dents some crazy the­ory — that op­tions trad­ing makes mar­kets safer by spread­ing risk, for ex­am­ple — then sit back and watch the fi­nan­cial sys­tem col­lapse 20 years later when your moles are run­ning it.

A debt rater: As we saw dur­ing the Greek debt cri­sis, rat­ings com­pa­nies have the real power to make or break economies. Even bet­ter, they can just make this stuff up. One minute Greece was in­vest­ment grade, the next it was junk, al­though not much had changed about the coun­try in the mean­time. Choose a nation that you want to de­stroy, then get your agents in­stalled as an­a­lysts at the three main as­ses­sors — Fitch Rat­ings, Stan­dard & Poor’s and Moody’s. At the right moment, pull the trig­ger, whack it with three down­grades, and watch the im­plo­sion. It will be much eas­ier than nuk­ing the place.

Ap­ple: Ap­ple has taken con­trol of a whole gen­er­a­tion. If you re­lease a brand-new app the same day you in­vade one of your neigh­bors, ev­ery­one in the West will be too busy down­load­ing it to re­spond. Or per­haps even no­tice. Mi­crosoft is hardly at the cut­ting edge of any­thing these days — the Xbox 360 was its last hit prod­uct but un­less you want to take over the minds of a few mil­lion 13-year-old boys, that is hardly a tar­get wor­thy of your spy ring. Ap­ple is a dif­fer­ent story, and not just be­cause your agents should feel right at home in an or­ga­ni­za­tion that wor­ships a con­trol-freak leader, and is in­tol­er­ant of crit­i­cism.

Of course, maybe the agents at Bar­clays and Mi­crosoft were just a clever dou­ble-bluff — a ruse to throw the Cen­tral In­tel­li­gence Agency off the scent. A whole troop of at­trac­tive in­terns may be sit­ting down at their desks at Gold­man and Moody’s this sum­mer, mak­ing cof­fee, do­ing per­fect pho­to­copy­ing, and start­ing their sin­is­ter rise to the heart of the eco­nomic sys­tem. They may be­come the CEOs of to­mor­row.

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