Russian spy ring: IT was not enough

Members of the recently busted Russian spy ring certainly aren’t going to win any awards for the most innovative use of advanced technology. Contrary to the popular image of agents armed with suitcases full of James Bond-like gadgetry, most spies — these Russians included — still use many tried-and-true tools of the trade, such as Morse code and shortwave radio.

Reports of the alleged spies’ bumbling with the laptops and software they did have can’t be the proudest moment for their bosses at the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence agency and an offshoot of the KGB. However, their frustration isn’t unique.

The spy ring “faced some of the common security problems that plague many companies — misconfigured wireless networks, users writing passwords on slips of paper and laptop help-desk issues that take months to resolve,” writes Tim Greene in Network World.

They got some mileage out of steganography, a technique for hiding text messages in innocent-appearing digital images — say of a cat or a sunset — that can be exchanged on the Web. However, the software they used was not the most sophisticated available, writes Sally Adee on Tech Talk, a blog by the editors of IEEE Spectrum.

“Instead of leaving behind an artifact of your wrongdoing for the Justice Department to download, new programs [called network steganography] use ephemeral channels that disappear when the communication has been completed,” Adee wrote.

Besides the traceability shortcoming, the image-based steganography programs that the Russians used are not efficient. “The rule of thumb is that you can use 10 percent of a carrier file's size to smuggle data," write Józef Lubacz, Wojciech Mazurczyk and Krzysztof Szczypiorski in a February article in IEEE Spectrum. "For an ambitious steganographer, that could be a problem.”

The newer network steganography programs are equally adept at using audio and video files as message carriers. A single six-minute song, saved as an MP3, occupies 30M, enough to conceal every one of Shakespeare’s plays, the authors wrote.

Spy agencies are often needled for being too tradition bound. But sometimes practices stick around for a good reason — they work. Shortwave radio signals and coded messages are still surprisingly effective and used not only by the Russians but also by spies from Israel and Great Britain, writes Brett Sokol on Slate.


About the Author

John Zyskowski is a senior editor of Federal Computer Week. Follow him on Twitter: @ZyskowskiWriter.

FCW in Print

In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.


  • Anne Rung -- Commerce Department Photo

    Exit interview with Anne Rung

    The government's departing top acquisition official said she leaves behind a solid foundation on which to build more effective and efficient federal IT.

  • Charles Phalen

    Administration appoints first head of NBIB

    The National Background Investigations Bureau announced the appointment of its first director as the agency prepares to take over processing government background checks.

  • Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

    Senator: Rigid hiring process pushes millennials from federal work

    Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said agencies are missing out on younger workers because of the government's rigidity, particularly its protracted hiring process.

  • FCW @ 30 GPS

    FCW @ 30

    Since 1987, FCW has covered it all -- the major contracts, the disruptive technologies, the picayune scandals and the many, many people who make federal IT function. Here's a look back at six of the most significant stories.

  • Shutterstock image.

    A 'minibus' appropriations package could be in the cards

    A short-term funding bill is expected by Sept. 30 to keep the federal government operating through early December, but after that the options get more complicated.

  • Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco

    DOD launches new tech hub in Austin

    The DOD is opening a new Defense Innovation Unit Experimental office in Austin, Texas, while Congress debates legislation that could defund DIUx.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group