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Tiktok, Tinder, Zoomer, Spy: Motivations for Espionage in Late Millenials and Gen Z

Dan (pseudonym) Americas, Cyber Strategy, Intelligence

Tiktok, Tinder, Zoomer, Spy: Motivations for Espionage in Late Millenials and Gen Z

July 15, 2022 | | Americas | Written by Dan (pseudonym)

Tiktok, Tinder, Zoomer, Spy: Motivations for Espionage in Late Millenials and Gen Z


Among individuals who are considered prime targets for espionage, you can find people from nearly every lifestyle, creed, and ethnicity. Certain factors, such as money, ideology, compromise, and ego, have often been credited as those most likely to lend themselves to motivating an individual to commit espionage. Generationally, however, certain patterns may emerge, as the priorities of individuals in those generations change. The objective of this report is to outline both the weaknesses that may be exploited among the generational trends in zoomers in America, as well as opportunities to exploit other major intelligence targets based on their own demographics and priorities. For the purposes of brevity, these targets will be prioritized as Russia, China, and counterterrorism targets to be exploited by human intelligence operations conducted by the West. Some examples provided will present an exploitable opportunity for both sides, which will be highlighted—and some recent modern case studies will be considered as well, to supplement the hypothetical examples.

Within the United States and most of the intercontinental West, social media has become a free and open source of previously secret (or at least more difficult to acquire) information. Individuals incriminate themselves, presume nonexistent privacy, and overshare to the point of no return, and it has become commonplace and accepted as a way to get out with friends, get a job, meet a romantic partner, or do any number of socially critical endeavors. Currently, social media isn’t a major concern in background checks, for good reason—examining it is rightly seen as an invasion of privacy and not the best indicator of an individual’s value to an agency. However, if more is not done to protect the privacy of every individual who accesses social media, to permanently delete certain content, or to help people remove their digital presence when necessary, one of the primary vectors we may see for compromise in the near future, primarily for Western-based targets, will be digital compromise. Digital compromise has already been seen on the civilian level; small scale blackmail content gets millions of views on TikTok, as users will “expose” a person’s lewd, politically incorrect, or outright obnoxious behavior to a family member, loved one, or their job, as a means of getting more views themselves. Other individuals make it their mission to “dox” people they dislike, exposing their real identities associated with digital personas. This kind of compromise can be done by nearly anyone with a computer. It will not take long for intelligence agencies to catch on and realize how many blackmail opportunities exist in cyberspace just on the clearweb among individuals with security clearances. And while these individuals may not face dire or career-ending consequences if “exposed” to their employers for bad behavior online, the fact that enough people may think they would be makes it just as viable for use as blackmail as other historical types of compromise. Drug use or abuse, infidelity, homosexuality, and numerous other behaviors seen as improper in the 20th century made excellent targets for compromise, but in the 21st century, one need only dig into an individual’s digital footprint to find something to threaten them with. What’s more, there have been documented cases of individuals threatened with blackmail for something they didn’t actually do who have fallen prey to it, offering to pay off the blackmailer to avoid exposure. Emmanual Cafferty is one recent, modern example of this—coaxed by a stranger during a road rage incident into making what he didn’t realize at the time was a “white power” symbol, he was subsequently blackmailed and lost his job (Mounk, 2020). Spending any time on social media will reveal dozens of smaller-scale cases of compromise of this nature, which often result in the individual in question losing their job. The public sector is far from immune to these threats—one HUD staffer under Trump was nearly terminated for liking an Instagram post by Taylor Swift. According to the International Business Times, “During the final year of the Trump administration, the enforcers had begun monitoring staffers for any signs of disloyalty. Many who were deemed ‘insufficiently devoted’ were also purged from their positions'' (Ong, 2021). Even the Presidency is not immune to these sorts of threats—a significant portion of the country was concerned that the Russians may have obtained “kompromat” of the President during his time in Moscow, enough to significantly shake any faith in his capability to carry out the office of the presidency regardless of its truth. This reveals a secondary, more sinister problem with this method of compromise: deepfakes, or digital fakes, open up an entirely new way to compromise an individual digitally for blackmail purposes. And unlike previous background check methods which could detect if someone was in significant debt, addicted to drugs, or lying to a spouse, many individuals may not even remember their digital footprint, so even if they are questioned about their internet history in a background investigation, it is unlikely that anything useful will come up until it is too late. With the advent of deepfakes, an individual need not even commit an act of indecency in order to be blackmailed for it. As was said about the so-called “golden shower” tapes regarding former President Trump, it does not matter if he actually engaged in waterplay in a Moscow hotel. If he suspected that he might have and didn’t remember it, and someone claimed to have a video of it, that is enough to compromise an individual and to induce potential committal of espionage.

Outside of the potential for deepfakes on social media creating opportunities for compromise among zoomers as they age into and are accepted by Government and Intelligence jobs, a significant motivation to examine among zoomers may be ideology. Politics among zoomers have followed the trend of millennials and have become significantly more progressive in general, according to the Pew Research Center (Parker, 2020). If the last year has shown us anything, it should be a lesson in the willingness of many young Americans to get involved in political activism. Activism and progressivism are often very good things, but with a populace who are more and more likely to be dissatisfied with the way things are now and want to be a part of change, there comes the risk of insider spying. There have already been some recent examples of individuals who claimed to have had ideological motivations when committing acts of espionage, such as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden. While there were likely other motivations in play for both, such as a desire to get back at people within their organizations who they felt had wronged them, much of the coverage of their cases both inside and outside the U.S. focused on their ideological motives as “whistleblowers” and “activists” (Biography.com, 2021). Russia and China have already demonstrated a willingness to utilize individuals who have strong views on politics in the U.S. to do harm from within. The Internet Research Agency used social media, primarily Facebook and Twitter, to target American citizens on the political right as well as the political left, to incite political protests and confrontations, encourage violence, and spread disinformation. Individuals acting on this information become unwilling assets to the governments spreading the disinformation, either by continuing to spread it to others or carrying out actions in the real world with consequences for stability in the U.S. China has done some of the same with apps like TikTok, spreading disinformation about its own government designed to make China seem like a victim of “Western imperialism” or a noble champion of worker’s rights. An interesting consequence of the modern era’s distance from the Cold War is a political turn by many former liberals to far left, pro-communist ideas, leading some to even praise the Soviet government and others as ideal or something to be aspired to. While this is a minority of individuals, the support for far left-wing ideology is growing among young people (Parker, 2020). Aspiring to create better working and living conditions in the U.S. is noble, but historical revisionism is dangerous. When Americans go from criticizing the current distribution of wealth in the U.S. to praising or defending the Chinese Communist Party, there is potential for a serious problem. The other side of this coin is that distance from the Cold War itself has many young Americans unaffected by news that Russia or China are attacking the U.S. democratic system or those of other countries, with some even dismissing it as “Jingoistic American military propaganda.” I have personally seen in the comment sections of digital content in places like TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter, especially regarding content reporting news of saber-rattling by Russia or China, dozens and even hundreds of commentators (granted, some of whom may be bots or not American citizens) claiming the news is Red-Scare style fearmongering. If Gen Z is potentially harboring support for historical revisionism of communism, sympathy for the Chinese or Russian governments, and anger at the state of affairs in the United States, they may on the whole be much more vulnerable to ideologically motivated espionage. Historically, one can point to the Cambridge Five, the Weather Underground, and numerous other examples of individuals in the West who became sympathetic to hostile countries based on propaganda and support for certain political ideologies. Based on the current political trends in the U.S., intelligence agencies should brace for the potential that similar cases could occur more frequently in the future.

Many zoomers have become extremely disillusioned with America’s history of institutionalized racism. While not unexpected or undeserved, it creates an excellent opportunity for Russia and China to wage ideologically-based information warfare, adding fuel to the fire of potential ideologically motivated insider spies. This “information nationalism” as it is described by Sarah Jeong from “The Verge,” is not impossible to counter. If the U.S. takes more steps to address its troubling past as a nation regarding racism, xenophobia, and hatred, as Jeong points out Germany has, it makes it more difficult for this specific type of play to work. Russia and China are also vulnerable to information nationalism directed by the U.S. By spreading information on popular social media about, for example, the Chinese oppression of Uyghur Muslims, or Vladimir Putin’s hoarded offshore wealth, or Russian war crimes in Syria and Chechnya, it may be possible to create disaffected political activists in these countries who may eventually produce viable insider recruitments or assets (Jeong, 2020). While it is more difficult for the U.S. to employ these methods against authoritarian regimes who oppress and target their opposition and activists than it is for them to employ these techniques against the U.S., ideologically motivated individuals in foreign countries may make very good recruits for larger-scale disruption operations as well as small scale direct action missions.

While most of Gen Z are more progressive than previous generations, the unique events of the last four years and their effect on the American political landscape have been significant. A number of Americans within Gen Z have fallen down the rabbit hole of groups like QAnon. Even among those who have not, there is a present and significant insider threat from those who may be ideologically motivated by right-wing politics in the United States. However, while the left-motivated individuals may be moved to act out or aid hostile powers based on a belief that they are helping to push the U.S. on a more progressive path, it is possible that individuals motivated by right-wing politics may see themselves (or be convinced to see themselves by a clever recruiter) as secretly fighting the “liberal elites” from the inside. We have already seen the direct attempts by the Russian government to entangle their assets with the Trump administration. Who is to say that they will not take advantage of Trump’s 2020 loss to target angry supporters who already work for the government with conspiracy theories or propaganda that will entice them to commit espionage to “help out Trump” in some way, or to preserve their idea of what the U.S. should be? This threat vector is one with potentially more dire results. Left-wing activists among Gen Z tend to be less willing to actually commit acts of political violence (though many do have an extremely negative view of American police and even the U.S. government). Recent statistics from CSIS showed that from January to August of 2020, there were over 40 violent terror acts perpetrated by the far right, compared to less than 15 by the far left and less than 5 by Jihadists (Jones, Doxsee, Hwang, Suber, Harrington, 2020). Right-wing activists, especially those far enough on the right to fall close to groups like the Proud Boys or QAnon, are on average more armed and more willing to kill. Under the right circumstances, especially if there were commencement of a more direct hybrid conflict between the U.S. and Russia, it is not unreasonable to suspect that a skilled Russian intelligence officer or illegal agent could recruit, run, and motivate a right-wing militia capable of carrying out direct action straight out of The Turner Diaries. Maria Butina, the Russian illegal who was arrested for acting as an undeclared spy, was making connections within the NRA (an organization popular both among the right and radical far right in the U.S.) and through American University that could have eventually been fruitful for the Russian government (Butler, 2018). It is not far-fetched to imagine a similar spy recruiting and managing a group of right- or left-wing activists as a direct action proxy for a foreign government, or preying on the political beliefs of an insider to recruit them as a spy.

Going through the MICE (Money, Ideology, Compromise, and Ego) system as a way of considering motivations, ego is probably not going to be significantly affected by shifts in national politics, but money certainly can. Among many zoomers who are most disillusioned by American politics (or the most opposed to the actions and history of the U.S.) are those who have also gone to college. Nearly every job in or adjacent to the U.S. government now requires at least a bachelor's degree, in particular those with a significant level of access to sensitive information. The confluence of political disillusionment and the massive debt associated with zoomer college graduates creates a perfect storm for money to be paired with ideology as a way to target and recruit insider spies. To this end, the massive wealth inequality in the United States and the weaponization of debt against the disappearing middle and lower classes that have become all the more evident during the Coronavirus pandemic become an even greater national security risk. During the Cold War, student loan debt was not nearly as much of a leviathan, with most people who went to college able to afford it within reason or even able to find a high-level job without a degree. Looking at some of the most high-profile espionage and insider spy cases in the U.S., many of the individuals involved seemed much more interested in revenge, nationalism/sympathy for another country (often China), and egotistical pursuits than money. Today, money may play a significantly larger role than in the past among U.S. insider spies looking to put a dent in their student loan debt.

From a domestic as well as a foreign counterterrorism standpoint, the U.S. has been largely successful at preventing attacks in the homeland, though the most persistent and elusive threat remains the lone wolf. In the aftermath of the Trump presidency and the virulent spread of dangerous and anti-government sentiment by numerous supporters, right-wing domestic terrorism has emerged once again as one of the dominant persistent terror threats within the U.S. and doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon (Jones, Doxsee, Hwang, Suber, Harrington, 2020). The FBI will largely have its work cut out for it in targeting intelligence sources on these attacks, infiltrating militias and digital forums where plans are often advertised or discussed, and running HUMINT sources within these groups. Increased collaboration with local law enforcement, combined with CIA assessment of how, when, or if any of these groups are being influenced by external guidance or assistance, will be vital to gauging their capabilities and preventing their attacks from succeeding.

The shifts in politics among zoomers and the instability of the last few years create an interesting operational environment for hostile intelligence services targeting Americans by creating so many new opportunities for ideological, financial, or compromise-based exploitation. While not all of the aforementioned techniques will have as much success against foreign intelligence targets, zoomers in other countries will eventually be in positions of power, and they will bring their politics with them. In Russia, Putin’s rock-solid control over the Duma and his federal agencies as well as heavy screening out of individuals with any connection to opposition groups mean the personal politics of opposition groups in Russia will be less exploitable than in the U.S. However, that same rigid screening may do a good job of creating a larger population of disaffected or anti-government civilians with the potential to be recruited or manipulated in the same way that Russia targeted and manipulated large segments of the U.S. population via social media. Additionally, as Putin gets older, and as uncertainty about what will happen to Russia when he is no longer in power grows, it may create an opportunity to sow doubt among his inner circles or members of the Russian government about their own personal safety and security in a Russia that he is not a part of. Especially with the changing climate and growing resource scarcity, more and more individuals with important access may be able to be manipulated by their fears and assuaged with promises of protection in the event of potential collapse or intensifying conflict. Those who fall out of direct favor with, or have less access to, the president than others may worry about the precariousness of their security if something unpredictable happens. Offering them a way to hedge their bets for their safety while asking little in return may be a viable inroad to securing cooperation from Russian insider spies.

While the future of motivation for espionage may be reliant on the latent or perceived instability of the Putin regime and the environment, the future for targeting China is a bit more cloudy. With the majority of China’s population digitally cut off from the rest of the world by “The Great Firewall,” it is nearly impossible to exert influence via social or digital media as well as to gauge the consensus of the Chinese people or trends that may help to predict or anticipate shifting individual motivations. China is a notoriously hard target, where at times large numbers of sources have gone missing in one fell swoop with no clear explanation. In addition, more so than in some places (though the whole world is becoming harder to spy on thanks to emerging technology), China is extremely difficult to operate undercover in. Many cyber operations of the present and future still require an agent, or an officer, infiltrating and placing a physical piece of technology, especially those targeting the most valuable closed systems. As a result, while the security situation may get significantly more difficult in China for undercover officers and HUMINT operations, it is difficult to say how motivations may change for individuals in China who spy, or if they will at all. If things continue the way they have been going, the standard MICE motivations may continue to have to be applied on a case-by-case basis, and the U.S. may become even more reliant on cyber, SIGINT, OSINT, GEOINT, and MASINT than it already is. HUMINT has traditionally been a way to fill vital gaps and requirements that couldn’t be filled in other ways, but with a more and more dangerous security picture in certain states, the techniques used for HUMINT will need some creative evolution to adapt. In some ways, older, less technologically based methods may be far superior, especially when it comes to avoiding detection or security measures. In others, taking advantage of emerging technological opportunities, such as arranging clandestine meetings in virtual spaces or encrypted chat rooms, may be more opportune. An assessment from Just Security posits that both approaches will have merit, particularly in denied areas, but may ultimately come down to the preferences and needs of the assets (Sims, 2021). After all, the penultimate concern for CIA officers should always be prioritizing the well-being and safety of their sources.

With shifting technology, political changes, and financial situations globally and within the U.S., the core reasons people spy may remain relatively unchanged. However, certain vulnerabilities that can be understood and anticipated or exploited by looking at trends within the U.S. and hostile powers have the potential to create spectacular new opportunities or dangers in the world of HUMINT. By properly analyzing and assessing what these trends are, what they represent in individuals as well as as a reflection of the national interest and dynamic, and understanding how they may be exploited for good or ill, the next generation of officers can prepare for the most critical HUMINT recruitment operations of the 21st century.



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Dan is a candidate for the Master of Arts in Strategic Intelligence Studies at the Institute of World Politics.