Intelligence Redefined: The Interplay of Private Companies and National Security

In the intelligence field, there is a complex interplay between private interests and national security interests. Private companies play an increasingly important role in enhancing intelligence collection, analysis, and dissemination, as most recently evidenced by their contributions to the war in Ukraine. However, this shifting balance between intelligence agencies and private firms calls into question the assumed conflict between security and commercial interests. It raises the challenge of balancing these companies’ contributions with the sensitivity of national security information, if possible.

Stephanie Lizzo
March 28, 2024


The rise of private companies challenges the once-static hierarchy of the intelligence field. As firms forge and strengthen their linkages with national intelligence communities (ICs), this proximity engenders questions regarding private actors’ re-envisioned role in intelligence.

The question of whether these companies can add value to intelligence is overly simplistic. The proliferation and expansion of their responsibilities offer clear evidence of their contributions. Instead of framing the issue in absolute terms, a more productive approach would be to examine the relationships involved. Specifically, how can the value added by private companies be reconciled with the potential risk to the sensitivity of national security intelligence?

How Private Companies Enhance Intelligence (as a Process and Product)

In examining the value added to intelligence by private companies, one must first recognize the dual abstractions of intelligence as both a process and a product.[1] This paradigm is critical in understanding the contributions of private entities.

Private companies can contribute significantly to the collection and processing phases of the intelligence cycle. While they might not always provide entirely new or previously inaccessible information, their value lies in allowing ICs to focus their resources on higher-priority issues.[2] Private companies also increase the speed of information collection, processing, and dissemination, subsequently informing up-to-date intelligence. This benefit is amplified for companies leveraging big data and or AI technologies: multiple sources of disparate data are almost instantaneously collected and shared,[3] thereby offering a more comprehensive and accurate intelligence picture.

Reframing private firms’ contributions by looking at the value added to the intelligence product highlights their potential. A prime example lies in the sociological concept of epistemic communities, whereby personnel from private companies are integrated into broader intelligence networks due to their domanial knowledge and competence.[4]

Part of this epistemic value stems from the need for many intelligence agencies to manage a wide breadth of thematic or functional issues. However, most agencies’ mandates revolve around a specific discipline or a foreign-domestic dichotomy. Conversely, driven by marketplace competition, private companies can offer a more specialized knowledge base, which allows them to stand out through their high-level competence in specific areas.

Private companies indisputably add value through supportive roles that bolster the intelligence process’s efficacy and speed or through direct, novel provisions of expertise that shape the intelligence product. Notably, the subtle distinction between offering unique information and offering unique value is key to understanding these companies’ roles. Even when firms provide the same information or technologies that ICs already possess, their involvement allows for outcomes that ICs may be unable to achieve independently, even with the same inputs. The following case study explores this nuance.

Case Study: The War in Ukraine

Private companies added immediate value to conflict intelligence during the early days of the war in Ukraine. In a Twitter post, Ukraine’s Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov appealed to several firms, asking them to provide satellite imagery.[5] These companies’ subsequent provision of information led to the war’s characterization as the “first commercial imagery conflict.”[6]

This case study focuses on private companies’ proliferation of geospatial intelligence (GEOINT). Its uniqueness makes the significance of this value added more compelling. Consequently, it is essential to explore the counterfactual: could ICs have provided the same benefits? If not, how did private companies concretely demonstrate their unique value added?

The most pertinent advantage unique to private entities is the ease and speed with which they disseminate information. Companies can send imagery to the Ukrainian army mere moments after initial collection, a capability known as shareability.[7] In comparison, ICs must undergo a lengthy declassification process. The “democratization” of intelligence allows for improved tactical and operational intelligence insights. This has likely contributed to the unexpectedly impressive performance of the Ukrainian army.[8] The speed advantage of private companies stems from the predominant advertising rather than concealment of their capacities. Conversely, ICs’ spy satellites are connected to classified capabilities that they may be unwilling or unable to reveal.

A potential counterargument is that ICs have also released intelligence at unprecedented speeds and volumes during this war.[9] However, this rapid pace of information sharing might be a characteristic unique to the conflict rather than to a permanent shift. It is more likely that private companies’ involvement has played a significant role. As these firms share enormous amounts of information, ICs may realize that much of their covert intelligence is becoming public knowledge. This allows them to quickly declassify and disseminate germane intelligence supporting the assertions of private companies.[10]  Notably, most intelligence released by the U.S. government followed, rather than preceded, the release of open-source intelligence. For example, Maxar Technologies identified a buildup of military equipment in late November 2021, a week before the U.S. IC began releasing its own estimates of Russian troop accumulation.[11]

Thus, the unique value added by private firms stems from the inimitable impact of their collection and sharing mechanisms rather than the uniqueness of the information itself.

Commercial and Security Interests: Incompatible?

Before delving into the perceived incompatibility of private interests and national security information, it is essential to understand the difference between secrecy and sensitivity. Conflating the two leads to the erroneous belief that private participation inherently threatens the sensitivity of national security information by making secrecy hard to achieve and harder to maintain.

Secrecy is embedded in the intelligence field at two levels of analysis. On the country level, secrecy allows a state to protect its clandestine sources and capabilities. On the organizational level, ICs have instrumentalized secrecy to secure autonomy and prestige.[12] Consequently, the entrance of private companies into the intelligence domain represents a substantial threat to ICs’ symbolic power.

However, the growing prominence of private actors has taken place in the context of a broader transition from secrecy to silence. The exponential expansion of data and digital connectivity makes secrecy more difficult to attain. While private companies contribute to this challenge, they are not solely responsible and, therefore, cannot be considered the singular threat.

This discussion highlights a broader lesson: national security intelligence is not valuable because it is secret but because it is accurate and actionable. These latter features can be aided by, but do not inherently necessitate secrecy. Secrecy is a valuable asset, but no longer the most important one.

Profits Versus Sensitivity

Following this shift away from secrecy as a primary concern, a crucial question emerges: to what extent do private companies compromise the sensitivity of national security intelligence, potentially impacting accuracy and accountability? While this question represents a slight permutation of a broader inquiry, it still necessitates assessing the presence and degree of misalignment between commercial and national security interests.

The driving forces for most private companies are profit maximization and market share growth.[13] These commercial interests reign supreme. The proliferation of private partnerships with ICs does not imply the existence of a market segment willing to privilege national security over profit. Instead, many firms use a proclaimed commitment to national security to garner additional revenue. Yet, a priori, the two parties seek the same end: high-quality intelligence that delivers financial rewards and incentivizes continuation of the contractual relationship. Although profit and national security represent separate sets of interests, there is sufficient space for achieving outcomes that are mutually beneficial for both parties.

However, there are situations where private companies may be incentivized to compromise sensitivity, especially when working with multiple clients. For instance, a private company working with Governments A and B might be tempted to covertly compromise the sensitivity of intelligence from A to win or renew a contract with B. In seeking to maximize profits from numerous clients, the private company loses its incentives to wholly satisfy the needs of any one government. The firm McKinsey & Company exemplifies this potential conflict due to its cooperation with Chinese state-owned firms.[14] If McKinsey were to share information on the U.S. IC or military with China-aligned clients, this provision of unique expertise and insight might encourage the Chinese government to offer more lucrative contracts.

Conversely, companies heavily reliant on a single government for revenue are less likely to jeopardize that relationship by engaging with other governments. For example, prominent private U.S. intelligence contractors like Booz Allen Hamilton, which receives 99% of its revenue from the U.S. government, have strong incentives to maintain trust with their primary source of income. In contrast, firms like McKinsey, with a much broader array of clients, have an incentive to “client shop,” potentially compromising the sensitive intelligence of the respective governments they work with.

Harmonizing commercial and security interests to produce a reinforcing, rather than an attenuating, effect might require structural solutions, such as laws on conflicts of interest. However, client shopping and compromising sensitive intelligence will always be a concern. Due to a variety of dynamics within public-private partnerships, there will always be a mix of both positive and negative national security outcomes. These negative outcomes do not imply an inherent conflict between commercial interests and sensitivity. Instead, they imply the distinct and context-specific nature of these interests, which is influenced by the interplay of intra-relational dynamics and structural market incentives.

Lessons Learned

As private companies play an increasingly significant role in the intelligence field, it is imperative for policymakers and practitioners to acknowledge both the positive and negative implications of this trend. While acknowledging the potential for deleterious outcomes, it is crucial to remember that commercial interests and intelligence sensitivity are not diametrically opposed. Their alignment is driven by the specific circumstances and prevailing incentives within each partnership.

Policymakers and practitioners must prioritize the development of safeguards that can help reconcile misalignment of interests. A prominent example is the enactment of laws focusing on the disclosure of conflicts of interest.  Clear guidelines, mandatory disclosure requirements, and penalties for non-compliance create a robust framework to minimize the likelihood of compromising sensitive information.

Furthermore, it is crucial to avoid the fallacy that the mere existence of risks implies that the alternative – the exclusion of private companies from the field – is inherently better. This argument overlooks the possibility of weaker or less comprehensive capacities if ICs stop collaborating with private firms, potentially leading to greater security threats. Therefore, a more balanced approach that acknowledges both risks and benefits is essential for navigating the complex and ever-evolving landscape of public-private cooperation in intelligence.


Stephanie Lizzo currently works as a Junior Policy Analyst at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. She graduated from The Paris Institute of Political Studies with a Master’s degree in International Security with dual concentrations in African Studies and Intelligence Studies.


[1] Michael Werner, "Wanted: A Definition of Intelligence," Journal of the American Intelligence Professional 46, no. 3 (2002)

[2] L. Elaine Halchin, “The Intelligence Community and its Use of Contractors: Congressional Oversight Issues.” Congressional Research Service, August 18, 2015.

[3] Paul B. Symon and Arzena Tarapore, “Defense Intelligence Analysis in the Age of Big Data.” Joint Force Quarterly 79 (2015).

[4] Sophia Hoffmann, Noura Chalati, and Ali Dogan. "Rethinking intelligence practices and processes: three sociological concepts for the study of intelligence." Intelligence and National Security (2022): 1-20.

[5] Mykhailo Fedorov. Twitter Post. March 1, 2022, 15:20.

[6] Julia Siegel, “Commercial satellites are on the front lines of war today. Here’s what this means for the future of warfare.” Atlantic Council, August 30, 2022.

[7] Borowitz, “The war in Ukraine shows how important private satellite companies have become—especially in times of conflict.”

[8]Peter Dickinson, “Ukraine’s remarkable resilience may prove decisive in long war with Russia.” Atlantic Council, August 29, 2023.,-By%20Peter%20Dickinson&text=Over%20the%20past%20eighteen%20months,the%20reality%20of%20the%20war.

[9]William P. Strobel, “Release of Ukraine Intelligence Represents New Front in U.S. Information War With Russia.” The Wall Street Journal, April 4, 2022.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Shane Harris and Paul Sonne, “Russia planning massive military offensive against Ukraine involving 175,000 troops, U.S. intelligence warns.” The Washington Post, December 3, 2021.; Kevin Liptak, “US intelligence estimates Russian troop levels on Ukraine border could reach 175,000.” CNN, December 4, 2021.; Michael Crowley, “U.S. Intelligence Sees Russian Plan for Possible Ukraine Invasion.” The New York Times, December 4, 2021.

[12] Troy Michael Mouton, “Organizational culture’s contributions to security failures within the United States intelligence community.” Master’s thesis, Louisiana State University, 2002.

[13] Wan-Yu Yeh, Ching-Ying Yeh, and Chiou-Jong Chen. “Exploring the public-private and company size differences in employees' work characteristics and burnout: data analysis of a nationwide survey in Taiwan.” Industrial Health 56, no. 5 (2018):452-463.

[14] Dan De Luce and Yasmine Salam, "McKinsey & Co. worked with Russian weapons maker even as it advised Pentagon.” NBC News, May 21, 2022.