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.

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