Fast Company

Deep Inside Alleged Russian Spies' Tech and Techniques

spy techBeautiful Russian spies, high tech gadgetry, political intrigue, White House involvement ... is this reminding you of the Cold War or James Bond much? Well it's real news today, in the U.S. and all about USB sticks and Wi-Fi--not bullets so much.

The story is all about the Justice Department filing criminal charges against 11 people (including break-out star Anna Chapman, above) allegedly embedded in U.S. society as covert Russian government agents tasked to get close to high-ranking officials, including folks in the White House. Some of these sleeper agents were apparently in the States for decades, using real-life updated versions of the type of gadgets that are standard fare in pretty much every spy movie ever. We're talking encrypted messages, ultra-fast radio data transmissions, wireless computer communications, and the Net.

But while this might sound pretty cool, none of this technology is particularly innovative, at today's levels of sophistication of everyday gadgets. It's not even as sophisticated as Yiting Cheng's secret stash designs.

Below, a rundown of the spy tech the 11 suspects allegedly used, its place is the annals of espionage, and some better, more innovative tech.

  • Steganography. THEN: This is the art of concealing messages in other data, so that you won't detect the hidden codes unless you're the encoder or intended recipient. Traditionally this included tricks like hiding text in drawings and in invisible ink between the otherwise normal text in a handwritten letter. NOW: In the digital data era, there are far cleverer ways of doing this--like hiding a code phrase in the pixel data of an image. In the current case, steganographic code was allegedly running on the suspects' computers, ready to swing into action with a key press or two. This tech has been in the news recently as hackers were using it to hide proprietary info in outgoing VoIP calls from corporate networks, and back in 2001 it was thought that Osama Bin Laden and his team were using steganography to organize their affairs.
  • Radiograms. The formal definition of a radiogram is a plain text message sent in a recognizable format over amateur radio, but in this case it describes a coded message transmitted over shortwave radio directly to operatives in Moscow. THEN: Radiograms are somewhat like telegrams, only transmitted over radio instead of cables, and with some of the same formalities in style and length. They've found use in all sorts of situations, including post-disaster communications. NOW: Radiograms can be thought of as radio data packets, and in their purest form they'd be hard to intercept and then decode, as you'd not know when to listen for them. As an alternative, spies may be able to make use of pay-as-you-go SIM cards for 3G cellphones--simple text messages shared between "disposable" cell phone numbers would be equally difficult to acquire if you're a policing authority. There has been much concern about the terrorism possibilities of such a system.
  • Wireless range extenders. One of the accused agents, Anna Chapman (pictured), is alleged to have used a wireless range extender for her laptop to set up an ad hoc wireless network to communicate with other Russian agents via a distantly situated computer that was registered to the Russian government. THEN: This sort of tech wasn't even possible during the Cold War, with radio data comms a mere shadow of the sophistication we know now. NOW: Ad hoc Wi-Fi networks are hard to detect if both users are using laptops and wireless range extenders--theoretically one agent could be in a hotel room, and the other in the lobby, or other easy-to-imagine situations. On the other hand, if the ad hoc network doesn't come with clever enough encryption, even Google's demonstrated how easy it is to "overhear" a seemingly private Wi-Fi network at long range.

In the end the downfall of this computer-based system was apparently the password needed to encode and decode the messages--it was 27 characters long, and was so hard to memorize that some of the suspects had written it down on a piece of paper that the FBI found during a search. This proves how even the highest tech can be defeated by simple human failings and highlights that the basic comms systems these spies were using weren't incredibly sophisticated (beyond the point of user error, for example). You may argue that lower-level tech is easier to conceal, but there have to be some higher-tech alternatives, don't there? The answer is yes, and while the tech isn't quite mature yet, in the future other spy rings like this may communicate using far cleverer and harder-to-intercept systems. The most obvious coding system that falls into this category is quantum cryptography. This uses some freaky aspects of quantum mechanics to encrypt a message in such a way that the only person who can decode it is the intended recipient, and if the message is intercepted on the way it'll be nothing but garbage, and the interception will be evident to the real correspondents.

Speculation about how other spy rings are communicating may be surprisingly relevant, too--a famous Cold War defector who fled to the West in 1985, and had high-level knowledge of KGB operations, has recently alleged that there may be as many as 60 couples embedded in the U.S. as deep-cover or sleeper agents.

To keep up with this news, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.

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