In 2003, the CIA abducted Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr off the streets of Milan. He was suspected of recruiting foreign jihadist fighters and then facilitating their way to Iraq. With Hassan shipped off to Egypt for interrogation, the operation at first appeared to be a success. What happened over the following months and years demonstrated how technology may be the undoing, if not the end, of covert operations.

Twenty-three CIA officers were convicted, in absentia, by the Italian courts of kidnapping Nasr. The operation’s CIA involvement was brought to light when the Italian government traced the activity of cell phones belonging to CIA personnel, ironically using a version of Analyst Notebook, which America had provided to the Italian government as part of a post-9/11 counterterrorism package. Using this software, they found the metadata from the CIA operatives’ cell phones showed that they were at the location of Hassan’s kidnapping at the same time he went missing.

Since the Edward Snowden affair, metadata has become a household word, as has awareness of how powerful this data can be in the wrong hands. When you consider the proliferation of biometric scanners in airports and even on city streets, the difficulties involved in inserting clandestine operatives for covert operations become even more profound. Conducting long-term analysis of big data may be the final blow to the traditional tradecraft we are all familiar with from spy novels and movies.

Cover-identity documents, disguises, and counter-surveillance routes may very well go the way of the dodo, but will this leave America’s intelligence professionals dead in the water without a purpose in life? Or will technology itself facilitate the birth of a new form of intelligence gathering?