Were alleged Russian spies undone by technology problems?

Password security needed improvement, too

What's Russian for "geek?" The recently busted alleged Russian spy ring apparently was in serious need of tech support, according to published reports.

Their problems included misconfigured wireless networks, users writing passwords on slips of paper and laptop help desk issues, wrote reporter Tim Greene in Network World.

"One of the most glaring errors made by one of the spy defendants was leaving an imposing 27-character password written on a piece of paper that law enforcement officers found while searching a suspect's home," Greene reported. "They used the password to crack open a treasure trove of more than 100 text files containing covert messages used to further the investigation."

The password gave investigators access to the alleged spies' steganography program, a sophisticated technology used to hide messages in digital files and retrieve them over the Web. Using steganography, for example, a spy could embed classified information in the digital code of a .jpg and post it on a blog. Any changes to the image that the hidden code caused would be nearly unnoticeable, and someone with the right decoder could download the picture and extract it.

The suspected spies also apparently had recurring problems with laptops that froze during file transfer, and wireless networks they could never get configured correctly, Greene reported.

The steganography software the spies used was apparently outdated, and that, even aside from the written-down password, might have led to their exposure, according to Sally Adee, writing in DiscoveryNews.

The alleged spies used older software that leaves detectable traces, Adee wrote. "Instead of leaving behind an artifact of your wrong-doing for the Justice Department to download, new stego programs use ephemeral channels that disappear when the communication has been completed," she reported. "It's called network steganography. You can do it in real time, you can transmit huge amounts of data, and you can do it without leaving behind any artifacts to implicate you."

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

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