Spies (Hopefully Not) Like Us

Carl Weinschenk

There's something a bit disappointing in finding out that the recently caught alleged Russian spies relied on the type of mobile equipment that can be found at Best Buy or, for that matter, in your own pocket. Things indeed have changed, according to this Associated Press story posted at the Moscow Times:

"In the old days, they'd have special KGB-type equipment. Now they use normal computers, normal laptops," said Sujeet Shenoi, professor of computer science at the University of Tulsa and a frequent consultant to the FBI. "Technology is so powerful now that you don't have to have special-purpose equipment anymore."

The bottom line is a bunch of spies wouldn't be found in a John le Carre novel -- or have the brains to come in from the cold. One caveat is that conventional wisdom suggests that much is unknown to the public and that the suspects-who may be traded to Russia for some of our spies -- probably aren't as innocuous and bumbling as they are being made out to be.


Regardless, the point of the story from a telecom point of view is that modern mobile tools are potent. And the power is available to operatives on both sides of the fence. Not only does the writer describe how the wannabes used Wi-Fi and prepaid cell phones to pass data, but also how law enforcement caught an exchange on a public video security camera.


The suspects apparently got one thing right, however. The use of prepaid cell phones is far savvier than smartphones, which store information that can be used later by law enforcement. The riskiest device from the criminal's point of view is the iPhone. According to The Detroit Free Press, the Apple phone can present prosecutors with a treasure trove of information such as maps, GEO tags and browser history.


This topic is not all fun and games, of course. Many of the tools used by the alleged spies are common in industrial espionage. Recently, for instance, 50 people were arrested in Romania for using FlexiSPY. This, according to The Register, is sort of a general-purpose spy program for "people who want to catch cheating spouses, stop employee espionage, protect children and bug meeting rooms."


The people arrested were using the Pro-X version. According to the story, it is a powerful program:

FlexiSPY Pro-x] allows a user to listen to calls in real-time, surreptitiously read SMS, call logs, and email, and convert the targeted phone into a remote bugging device that can secretly capture the sounds in its immediate vicinity.

There is some good news, however. In addition to tools that could be requisitioned from a reasonably well-supplied IT department, the accused Russian spies relied on short-wave radios, invisible ink,and what the AP story calls "a classic, manual encryption method known as a one-time pad.'" At last, something of which George Smiley would approve.

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