Some quick comments after reading the UK undercover manual.
Creating a legend used to be fairly simple. Establish a pattern of behaviour (e.g. Donnie Brasco hanging around bars acting shady), establishing a backstopped story (e.g the KGB Illegals living in various countries for years before moving to their final targets), and/or having people that will support the cover story (e.g. FBI agents providing support roles as “former employer” for undercover operatives).
Illicit organizations develop vetting strategies to detect penetrations by people with weak legends and bad backstops. Examples include using private investigators to do background checks (such as the Mongols MC), requiring trusted individuals to vouch for applicants (used by many Islamic terrorist group such as ISIS and al Qaeda). Other techniques used are things like months of gruelling hours long ideological debates and self criticism sessions (an old Communist revolutionary group favourite), or making people participate in illegal incriminating activity, such as drug use (drug dealers) or murder (the Mafia).
Naturally, a better vetting method against penetration is to recruit people whose entire life history is known, for example IRA recruiting members into local units based on “oh, that’s Patty’s boy, he’s from a long line of republicans, his grandfather was…” These “life history” based vetting approaches, based on strong social ties, are extremely difficult to penetrate by outsiders.
Enter Facebook. It is no longer possible to create an identity out of thin air and establish a multi year legend. Anyone who doesn’t have an online footprint is suspicious. No Facebook, Twitter, forum posts, emails, MySpace, nothing? How does someone make it to 2016 without having any online history? Even terrorists had a social life before becoming security conscious.
Vetting for illicit groups has gotten easier, and developing reliable backstopped legends has gotten harder. Recently the German intelligence services announced they would no longer require their administrative and non operational staff to be “under cover” as it is too difficult and expensive to maintain in the age of social media.
Things will only get harder going forward.