The term “spy” conjures ideas about “foreign operatives,” “moles” and James Bond. You might envision forged IDs, fake passports and fraudulently issued government sponsored papers. When spies were recently exposed and caught in the United States, it was kind of surreal for me, since some of them lived right here in Boston.
Back in the day, spies used advanced covert technology, was always a hidden or shrunken version of something more common and accessible. Today, the same technology exists, and it’s cheap and mostly manufactured in China.
Lighters, pens, just about any small, seemingly benign object you can think of can contain a video or audio recording device. Tiny flash or thumb drives are capable of storing gigabytes of data.
The eleven Russian spies who were recently nabbed used a lot of the same equipment that you and I use today, including laptops, flash memory cards, and cell phones, but with a twist.
One of the spies would set up a laptop in a coffee shop on a regular basis, and the FBI noticed that on Wednesdays, a van driven by an official would go by. The FBI determined that when the van passed the coffee shop, there was a direct exchange of data via their wireless laptops. The discovery was made using commercially available WiFi sniffing technology. Apparently, the data was transferred in this way to avoid detection over the Internet.
The phones the spies used were prepaid mobile phones with no contract, which are often paid for with cash so the user can avoid detection. After a few uses they toss the phone and get a new number to avoid detection.
And the availability of fake identification makes it so easy to pose as someone else. Do an online search for “fake ids” and you’ll be amazed to discover how easy it can be to obtain an ID or passport. Or how easy it can be for someone else to obtain an ID that would allow him or her to pose as you. Some websites peddle poor quality cards, others offer excellent quality, and many websites are simply scams.
The fact is, most of our existing identification systems are insufficiently secure, and our identifying documents are easily copied. Anyone with a computer, scanner, and printer can recreate an ID. Outdated systems exasperate the problem by making it too easy to obtain a real ID at the DMV, with either legitimate or falsified information.
In the end, the spies were caught with a combination of high tech surveillance and gumshoe police work. The Boston Globe reports that in 2005, FBI agents found a password written on a piece of paper while searching the home of one of the spies. This allowed agents to decode more than a hundred messages between the spies and their government.
Unless we effectively identify who is who, using secure documentation, it’s spy business as usual.