Before James Bond heads out on a mission, he has to stop in Q’s laboratory for custom-made gadgets such as an exploding watch. Life wasn’t so dashing for the suspected Russian spies arrested this week: They allegedly relied heavily on off-the-shelf consumer electronics.
“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.”
According to the FBI’s complaints that sought the arrest of the 11 suspects, the array of tools included laptops, flash memory cards and at least one prepaid cell phone. The suspects are accused of backing that up with old-fashioned spy technology such as short-wave radios, invisible ink, and a classic, manual encryption method known as a “one-time pad.”
Short-wave radios were once relatively common in homes. Today, they’re a bit of a giveaway if the FBI already suspects you’re a spy. Not so with laptops, cell phones or flash drives. But that doesn’t mean spies can feel safe. The way the Russian suspects used these gadgets was revealing to FBI agents who followed them for years.
The use of “spy-fi” is a case in point.
The FBI said that one of the suspects, Anna Chapman, would go to a coffee shop in Manhattan on Wednesdays and set up her laptop. A little while later, a minivan the FBI knew was used by a Russian official would drive by. To the naked eye, there was no contact between them.
But the FBI said it figured out that Chapman’s computer was set to link wirelessly to a laptop in the minivan, using a standard, built-in Wi-Fi chip. In the short time the computers were close, they could transfer encrypted files between each other.
The agency figured this out with commercial Wi-Fi analysis software, not with something from Q’s lab.
Glenn Fleishman, editor of the Wi-Fi Net News blog, said that from a technical standpoint, the Wi-Fi link appeared to be fairly amateurish and laughably easy to sniff out. He pointed out that there’s at least one other commercially available technology for short-range transmissions, known as ultra-wideband radio, that would likely have been impossible for the FBI to pick up.
On the contrary, Keith Melton, who co-authored the book “Spycraft” with the former director of the CIA’s Office of Technical Service, said the use of Wi-Fi could have been “very smart” because no data passed through the Internet. The connection would have been impossible to trace — if the FBI hadn’t been smart and dogged enough to have Wi-Fi analysis equipment in place at the right time.
Melton said the technique is reminiscent of a precursor to today’s BlackBerry, developed by the CIA in the 1970s to give its spies in Russia some way to pass messages unseen to receivers close by. The downfall was that being caught with the equipment could lead to a death sentence.
In another example of an everyday item allegedly being used for secret communications, the FBI said Chapman bought a cell phone last Saturday under a fake name. This was probably a “prepaid” phone, which doesn’t come with a contract. Because there’s no long-term commitment from the buyer, the sellers don’t check the IDs of the buyers. That means law enforcement don’t know which numbers suspects are using, making wiretapping very difficult.
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