CIA secretly owned world's top encryption supplier, read enemy and ally messages for decades

For more than half a century, governments all over the world trusted a single company to keep the communications of their spies, soldiers and diplomats secret. That company was secretly run by the CIA, which had the ability to read all those communications for decades. Read the rest

Listen to spies' shortwave radio broadcasts

Gareth's post yesterday about the mysterious shortwave numbers stations used by spies to communicate happily reminded me of this article I wrote for bOING bOING Digital back in 1999 about the Conet Project, a legendary compilation of numbers station broadcasts produced by Irdial-Discs! Of course, this piece was written before Irdial-Discs sued the band Wilco for using a sample from the Conet Project recordings on their 2002 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. From bOING bOING Digital:

Twisting the dial of your shortwave radio, you come across the most "experimental" sounding station you've ever heard. A glockenspiel tune is followed by the voice of a little girl speaking numbers and letters in what sounds like a random order. Performance art? No, the message inside the madness just wasn't meant for you. Perhaps its intended for the ears of a CIA agent. Or KGB. Or MOSSAD. You've stumbled across a Numbers Station.

"Shortwave Numbers Stations are a perfect method of anonymous, one way communication--spies located anywhere in the world can be communicated to by their masters via small, locally available, and unmodified Shortwave receivers," reads the Web site of The Conet Project, an outfit that's compiled 150 Numbers Stations recordings from the last three decades on a four CD set. (The word "Conet" is the sign-off signal on one station.)

Is this spy stuff true or not? Well, a rare mainstream media article about Numbers Stations published in the Daily Telegraph last year quoted a spokesman for the Department of Trade and Industry, responsible for regulating the airwaves in the UK: "These (Numbers Stations) are what you suppose they are.

Read the rest

Hey, remember number stations? Whatever happened to them?

When I was writing my book, Jamming the Media (1997), while working on a chapter about pirate radio, I went deep down the rabbit hole of hunting down pirate stations, shortwave stations, police and military radio, and number stations. The latter are mysterious radio broadcasts of unknown origin where a series of numbers are read over the air. These are widely believed to be coded messages to spies in the field from the world's intelligence agencies.

I was surprised to run into this video on Curiosity Droid and to discover that number stations are still a thing. I would have thought that, in the age of encrypted digital communications, number stations would be archaic and unnecessary, but maybe entrenched government infrastructures are hard to dismantle, even when they're obsolete?

Image: YouTube Read the rest

Ingenious Cold War keylogger the Russians used to bug Selectric typewriters in the US embassy

In the 1970s, the Soviets managed to intercept top secret communications in the US embassy in Moscow and nobody could figure out how. While an antenna was eventually found hidden in the embassy's chimney, it took years to determine how what data was being collected for transmission and how. As a last resort, all equipment at the embassy was shipped back to the US for analysis. From IEEE Spectrum:

After tens of thousands of fruitless X-rays, a technician noticed a small coil of wire inside the on/off switch of an IBM Selectric typewriter. (NSA engineer Charles) Gandy believed that this coil was acting as a step-down transformer to supply lower-voltage power to something within the typewriter. Eventually he uncovered a series of modifications that had been concealed so expertly that they had previously defied detection.

A solid aluminum bar, part of the structural support of the typewriter, had been replaced with one that looked identical but was hollow. Inside the cavity was a circuit board and six magnetometers. The magnetometers sensed movements of tiny magnets that had been embedded in the transposers that moved the typing “golf ball” into position for striking a given letter.

Other components of the typewriters, such as springs and screws, had been repurposed to deliver power to the hidden circuits and to act as antennas. Keystroke information was stored and sent in encrypted burst transmissions that hopped across multiple frequencies.

For more on this fascinating story, check out former intelligence officer and technologist Eric Haseltine's new book: "The Spy in Moscow Station"

image: IBM Selectric by Oliver Kurmis (CC BY 2.5 Read the rest

Yet another Chinese woman arrested for trespassing at Trump's Mar-a-Lago

Well, this is weird. Read the rest

Threat Level Midnight is a go

Golden Face is back. This time, it's personal. Read the rest

Former Twitter employees charged with spying for Saudis

Two then-employees of Twitter used their position to provide the Saudi government with information about its critics on the platform, say prosecutors, who have charged them with espionage. The men rifled through "thousands of private accounts seeking personal information" of use to the kingdom's security forces, reports NPR.

Ahmad Abouammo, a U.S. citizen, was a media partnerships manager at Twitter who was not authorized to access Twitter users' private information. He allegedly did exactly that for which he received payments of up to $300,000 from a Saudi source identified in the complaint only as "Foreign Official-1." Abouammo also received a Hublot watch with a value of about $20,000. Abouammo is charged with acting as a foreign agent and falsifying records to obstruct a federal investigation. ...

Ali Alzabarah, a Saudi citizen worked at Twitter beginning in August 2013 as a "site reliability engineer." Between May 21, 2015, and November 18, 2015, Alzabarah, without authorization, accessed "the Twitter data of over 6,000 Twitter users, including at least 33 usernames for which Saudi Arabian law enforcement had submitted emergency disclosure requests to Twitter," the complaint said. Among the accounts he accessed were those belonging to well-known critics of the Saudi government.

Read the rest

China's using LinkedIn to recruit spies... again

I don't think that I've ever met anyone that actually enjoys using LinkedIn. I mean sure, depending on what you do for a living, it might help you land a new gig. Maybe, it can help you to network with folks within your industry. But it's awful. On the occasions where I need to use it in order to get hold of a PR rep from some hard-to-reach tech firm, I've always found it slow to load and a drag to navigate. That said, the problems that folks like you and I have leveraging the platform for anything useful might not be enough to keep a motivated employer from using the social media platform to track down top-shelf talent.

From the New York Times:

Foreign agents are exploiting social media to try to recruit assets, with LinkedIn as a prime hunting ground, Western counterintelligence officials say. Intelligence agencies in the United States, Britain, Germany and France have issued warnings about foreign agents approaching thousands of users on the site. Chinese spies are the most active, officials say.

“We’ve seen China’s intelligence services doing this on a mass scale,” said William R. Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, a government agency that tracks foreign spying and alerts companies to possible infiltration. “Instead of dispatching spies to the U.S. to recruit a single target, it’s more efficient to sit behind a computer in China and send out friend requests to thousands of targets using fake profiles.”

Lazy access to potential intelligence assets? Read the rest

Review: Phantom Doctrine lacks the fun of XCOM

I want XCOM 2 on the Nintendo Switch. I'm waiting for it. Hoping. It has yet to come, be announced or even rumored by its developers. So, of late, I've found myself looking for other ways to get my turn-based combat fix. I completed Wasteland 2 some time ago. Japanese games seldom hold my attention and, even Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle has lost its charm. A couple of days ago, despite its mediocre reviews, I downloaded Phantom Doctrine, for $20. It's so close to being pretty much what I'm looking for. Sadly, it's held back by a number of issues.

In the game, you're in charge of a cell of cold-war era spies who bop around the world collecting intelligence, killing members of a shadowy opposing faction and trying not to get captured or liquidated in the process. What are they collecting intel on? It's hard to say. Unlike XCOM, which has a solid story that leads you from one plot point to the next, in Phantom Doctrine, it's hard to keep track of what why you're doing what you're doing. The game's story is paper thin and even when it becomes a little more clear, still isn't all that compelling. Mission briefings inform you that you're supposed to collect an informant or, in some cases, kill someone who recognized one of your agents. You base is always under threat of being exposed. Your spies are always run the risk of having their covers blown. It's run-of-the-mill stuff.

As with XCOM 2, your team members gain experience from every encounter they survive. Read the rest

A Russian spy's story of fear, blackmail and betrayal

Deniss Metsavas was a well-known military officer who frequently appeared on TV on behalf of his country's armed forces. He was also, thanks to a event of passion, blackmail and a constant fear of incarceration, a Russian intelligence asset. In this emotional video from The Atlantic, Metsavas talks about the consequences of his being blackmailed into becoming a witting Russian asset and the quick, dark path that led him to betraying his uniform and the country that he served.

Image vis Klickr, courtesy of Thomas Depenbusch (Depi) Read the rest

Malware-packing Chinese lady who hacked her way into Trump's Florida Mar-a-Lago now faces federal charges

Yujing Zhang hacked her way into Donald Trump's private Florida club Mar-A-Lago with social engineering skills any self-respecting DEFCON or HOPE attendee would recognize. Read the rest

Russian agent Maria Butina to be sentenced in U.S. on April 26

The admitted agent for Russia was connected with the NRA and pro-Trump U.S. political groups.

Sweden arrests tech worker said to be Russian spy

In Sweden, officers of the Swedish Security Service have arrested a person who worked “in a high-technology sector” and is believed by investigators to be a Russian agent. Read the rest

Vladimir Putin's old Stasi ID card discovered

What a wonderful time to be alive. Read the rest

Trump administration considering deep background checks on Chinese students

If you want an example of how big of a problem Chinese espionage is, you needn't look any further than the warnings that Canada and the United States have been throwing at corporations and governmental organizations about the use of gear built by tech companies with ties to the Chinese government.

Apparently, the issue extends beyond the use of smartphones and cellular networking hardware built by Huawei and ZTE: the US Government is thinking about conducting deep background checks on Chinese nationals coming to the United States in pursuit of their education. Spies! They're everywhere!

From IntelNews.Org:

...the Trump administration is reportedly considering the possibility of imposing deeper background checks and additional vetting on all Chinese nationals wishing to study in the US. Citing “a US official and three congressional and university sources”, Reuters said on Thursday that the measures would apply to all Chinese students wishing to register in undergraduate and graduate academic programs in the US. The news agency quoted a “senior US official” as saying that “no Chinese student who’s coming [to the US] is untethered from the state […. They all have] to go through a party and government approval process”. Reuters reported that the proposed plan includes a comprehensive examination of the applicants’ phone records and their presence on social media platforms. The goal would be to verify that the applicants are not connected with Chinese government agencies. As part of the proposed plan, US law enforcement and intelligence agencies would provide counterintelligence training to university officials.

Read the rest

Russian agents allegedly tried to hack lab associated with Skirpal poisoning investigation

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has been elbows-deep in the investigation of the Novichok nerve agent attack on Sergei and Yulia Skirpal. As part of their investigation into where the nerve agent may have originated, the OPCW sent samples of the chemical weapon to a number of independent labs.

Using multiple labs provides a fail safe against false positive results and bias – two things you'd want to avoid considering the fact that the results of the tests could trigger a significant international incident. One of the labs that the OPCW may have used (I mean, they're not going to come right out and say that this is where they're sending dangerous shit) was Switzerland's Spiez Laboratory. Since Russia has denied that it had any role in the poisoning of the Skirpals and the other collateral victims of the Novichok attack, it's really really surprising to be surprised by the surprise expulsion of two Russian intelligence agents (surprise!) from The Hague, where OPCW is based. Apparently, they were trying to tinker with Spiez Laboratory's computers.

From NPR:

Swiss and Dutch authorities did not immediately respond to NPR's request for comment. Andreas Bucher, a spokesperson for Spiez Laboratory, also declined to comment on the deportations. However, he confirms the laboratory's computer systems have been probed by unknown hackers in recent months.

"We've had indications that we were in the crosshairs," Bucher says. No data has been stolen from the lab, he adds.

Although Spiez Laboratory has not officially acknowledged receiving a sample, it is widely believed to have done so, according to Jean Pascal Zanders, an independent chemical weapons expert based in France.

Read the rest

Umbrella-camera and other Soviet spy cams up for auction

Next Thursday, Aston's auctioneers will sell off a private collection of cameras including some fantastic Soviet-era spy cams. According to the auction house's camera specialist, the most curious item is a camera containing a second camera (image below):

At first glance this appears to be a normal Zenith E camera it it's case, but opening it reveals a hidden miniature F-21 AJAX-12 camera. The camera is mounted so the f2.8 28mm lens is pointing out of the side edge of the case. On pressing a small button on the bottom of the case the internal mechanism cleverly raises a hidden internal flap, the camera shutters fires and the flap immediately closes shut. The user simply carries the camera over their shoulder in the normal way, but can take pictures at 90 degrees without raising any suspicion as it looks like the camera is in it's case and not being used. The camera uses 21mm film and has a clockwork drive for multiple shots without detection.

" Read the rest

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