Krypt3ia

(Greek: κρυπτεία / krupteía, from κρυπτός / kruptós, “hidden, secret things”)

Archive for the ‘Little Nikita’ Category

Russian Kulturny: Espionage Old School Meets the New Tech Comrade

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But many things shown even in bad movies are unfortunately true: Yes, the Russians like to wear fur hats, drink vodka, eat caviar, take pretty girls to the sauna. And, apart from some modern innovations like ad hoc networks, burst transmissions and steganography, the old proven tradecraft is pretty much the same. It is good and it normally works well (except in cases, when somebody is already being shadowed – then nothing works).

Boris Volodarsky: Former GRU Officer

Los Illegals.. Comrade…

With all of the hubub over the capture of the illegals, and of course all the rattling on about the “swallow” known as Anna Chapman, one has to cut through the dross to get to the real importance of the story. The fact is, that though the wall has fallen (long ago) and W looked into the “soul” of ol’ Pooty Poot and saw teddy bears and rainbows, the reality of it is that the “Bear” never went away or to sleep.

We are still a target, a rather rich one still, for collection of intelligence as well as corporate IP as Putin has pointed out in statements he has made over the years. It was Putin who actually said that Russia needed to step up its game in industrial espionage (I am paraphrasing) and created the means to do so within the new FSB *cough* KGB. This type of infiltration in hopes of collection never went away and I suspect that even with out own dismantling of the HUMINT departments of CIA, we still had a reasonable amount of assets and agents within Russia as they transitioned from the Sov bloc to today’s powerhouse of malware and Russian Mafia run state apparatus.

So, while reading all the news sites, it became clear to me that people really do not have a grasp of the realities surrounding the nature of espionage today. Everyone thinks that its all shiny technologies and protocols within the hacker scene that the next gen of spies are using and that old school techniques called “tradecraft” are outdated and useless.

Nope… It’s not just that. This is said rather well here by Boris again:

The public and writers alike do not really realise that this is NOT a film — a very large group of very experienced FBI agents and watchers spent a very considerable sum of taxpayers’ money and plenty of time to uncover a REAL group of the Russian undercover operators who brazenly operated in the United States, as they had been absolutely sure that no one would ever catch them because their education, training, intelligence tradition, and the belief that the wealth of the country behind them is much superior than the FBI. They forgot that the FBI of 2010 is much different from the Bureau of the 1950s.

It is highly likely that these agents were outed by a defector back in the 90’s. The defector was a Directorate S operative who worked within the UN in the NYC area and it is possible that he gave up the program. The FBI then was tasked with either finding them all blindly, or, they had at least one couple in their sites and steadily built their case by watching the illegals to get at their handlers. You see, the same logic applies to the FBI as does the perception of the KGB. The FBI is seen as slow witted and usually in the media, the blue sedan with guys in suits and sunglasses inside watching you ever so not subtly.

This is not necessarily the case as has been seen in some areas of the FBI’s counterintelligence unit. They really can do a good job at surveillance and counterintel collection.. They are not as bumpkin as they used to be in the 50’s… Nor the 80’s for that matter. Unfortunately though, it really took the Hanssen’s of the world to force them to be better.. But I digress..

Why Were They Here?

I think that there has been a basic misunderstanding in the press and the populace from reading poor press reports on the nature of the “illegals” program. Yes, they were tasked at times with getting data that could be readily available through open source (OSINT) channels such as the news or Google. However, their main task was to insert themselves into our culture, economy, and social strata in order to get “at” people of interest. Basically they were talent spotters.

These people got on to Linkedin and other social networks for the exact reason of making friends and gaining access to those who might be “of use” later on for their handlers and masters. They were facilitators really. You see, like the whole Robin Sage affair that is ongoing now, these folks already knew about the vulnerabilities within social networking and the social nature of human beings from the start. They were trained on this by the SVR and its not something that common people tend to think about. This is where the hacker world and the spy world meet (well they meet in many other places too but go with it for now) The hackers take advantage of the same flaws in our “systems” (cognitive as well as technical) to get what they want.

In this case, these illegals actually did gain some traction and some had access to potential sources that I think, had yet to be plumbed. Perhaps they were getting close to someone and this is what tripped the arrest cycle. Perhaps there are other more arcane reasons for that… As you may be seeing now that there is a prisoner swap with Russia in the works. Once again I direct you to Boris’ comments on their aegis:

What Russian intelligence in striving to get is secret information (political, economic, industrial, military, etc) and have a chance to influence decision-making and public opinion in favor of Russia. This is why agents are recruited or penetrated into sensitive or politically important targets.

The role of illegals is threefold:

  1. to act as cut-outs between important sources and the Centre (directly or via the SVR station);
  2. to serve as talent-spotters finding potential candidates for further intelligence cultivation and possible recruitment (a rather long and complex process, where the illegals only act at its early stage); and
  3. to establish the right contacts that would allow other intelligence operators (members of the SVR station) or the Centre (visiting intelligence officers under different covers, journalists, diplomats or scientists tasked by the SVR) to get intelligence information and/or receive favors that the Centre is interested in.

These illegals are really, like I said, facilitators for the real spies that are sent to our shores.They were practiced in the old school tradecraft of spying and were they not already under surveillance, they may not have been noticed at all by our counterintelligence services. Which brings me to another issue with all the reporting on this espionage round up.

Tradecraft VS High Tech Espionage:

As mentioned by Boris, the tradecraft angle is not only history for the SVR, KGB, or the GRU. Much as I believe that it is still in play for ALL of the intelligence services throughout the world. These practices are tired and true. They have been used to great effect by all spies and only are really heard about in books, film, or news stories like the ones today when the spies were busted.

Since the days of 007 on the screen, we have seen the Q branch and all their toys as a high profile part of “spying” when in reality there is some of that (see H. Kieth Melton’s books) but mostly, it has been the old school that has won the day for spies. The use of things like a Shortwave radio and a “One Time Pad” are still used today because they cannot easily be broken. The use of rapid burst radio transmissions too was a bit of a shock to me in the current case, but once I thought about it, the use of a rapid burst to a local “rezidentura” makes a lot of sense given the amount of RF we have placed into our landscape today. It would easily be lost in the noise and thus, a good way to go about secret communications.

Meanwhile, the use of “Brush Passes” “Chalking”, “Pass Phrases” and other old school techniques for communicating and passing intelligence never have lost their usefulness. Just because one can create an email dead drop on Gmail today pretty easily, does not infer that it is at all safer than meeting someone on the park bench, or leaving a postal stamp on a kiosk as a marker that “somethings up” These things hide within the static of every day life and often, because of “situational awareness” levels, go totally un-noticed. The other means via the “technology” of today’s internet is more circumspect because of so many factors. One of the primary of those being the hacking and cyberwar issues that are ongoing.

Even today, the news is full of “Perfect Citizen” an uber protection plan and technology that the NSA wants to use to protect the national infrastructure. How will it do this? By monitoring ALL of the traffic that it can and look for anomalous behavior. As the technology becomes more prevalent so too are the chances of your secret communications being discovered. It made sense that given the NSA’s power, the illegals and the SVR decided that old school was still the best bet. It was however, that the more technical approaches (i.e. netbooks, crypto, and adhoc networks) failed them, only proving my hypothesis above.

As an aside to LizzieB, the old bury the money under or near the bottle thing.. It still does work *heh*

The Final Analysis:

Much has yet to be told about these illegals as well as the reasons why this group was busted 10 years later. Why now? Why this sudden trade for spies? What tipped the FBI off to these spies in the first place? Was it indeed the defector I spoke of? We may never know. What we can deduce though, is this:

  • Spies never went away
  • Spies aren’t just stealing IP from corporations
  • Hey you, you with the access to the important people… You are a target
  • Technology does not always win the day, sometimes it is the weakest link
  • We have not seen the last of the SVR, KGB, Mossad, MI5 etc etc…
  • Russian spies do like their Vodka and sauna’s but they aren’t all Boris and Natasha caricatures

A full text of the cited Boris interview can be found HERE

CoB

Служба Внешней Разведки: Russian Espionage “The Illegals 1990-2010”

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Служба Внешней Разведки

“Christ, I miss the Cold War”

M from Casino Royale

The dramatic events unfolding within the last day or so over the “illegals” program caught by the FBI is really the stuff of Le Carre and other writers of espionage fiction. Yet, this is all real….

The reports started coming out yesterday afternoon and having seen a blurb on CNN I went out and got a hold of the complaint by the Federal government against the 10 conspirators and had a sit down. In the end I found myself alternately laughing at the story that unfolded as well as waxing historical about yesteryear during the cold war days. It seems though that one thing has changed a bit since the old days.

Millennial Spies?

It seems the SVR had to remind their operatives that they were in fact here for a reason and being taken care of for that reason, i.e. being spies.

This communique pretty much alludes to the fact that perhaps the “illegals” had been here too long and had begun feeling entitled as opposed to being servants of the state. This is a bit of a difference from the old cold war days. Yes, of course some deep cover operatives might have become “comfortable” in the west, but, they pretty much lived under the fear of reprisals to themselves and family in the old country if they misbehaved. This message and some of the handling that can be seen from the surveillance bespeaks a more millennial attitude by these illegals than old school Sov operatives. in one case an officer remarks that he is glad not to be one of the illegals handler as he is bitching about money… Kinda comical…

It also seems to me that some of these operatives were in fact quite young when they started and even as things progressed, were not as well trained as they could have been. In one case there is a remark of only about 2 weeks of training at the SVR  center, and this is not quite like the old days when the spooks got some serious training before going out in the field. Of course today, post the 1990’s break up of the Soviet Union, I suspect that in some of the minds at “C” we (FBI) have become lax at detection and operations just because we were very Sov oriented back in the cold war period.

However, this group of illegals seems to have been in play since the late 90’s and over time, have become more American than true blood Russian idealogs. With the amounts of money being passed to them over the years, these folks were rather well taken care of. This is something a bit different from the old days and bespeaks a paradigm shift in the SVR’s handling of them and approaches to getting good INTEL out of them. These folks were monetarily motivated which is usually how spies get brought in from other nation states, not the ones being sent to foreign posts by the motherland.

Times are a changing though… Guess you have to roll with it or lose assets.

Technology and OPSEC

The times have changed and with them the technologies of spy-craft do too. In the case of the illegals not only did they engage “AD HOC” wireless networks between laptops in open spaces (ballsy really given the nature of WIFI 802.11 standards and vulnerabilities) but also with the addition of things like the use of “Steganography

For some time now I have been randomly hoovering sites looking for stegged images and so far, I have come up with potential hits (Jihadist sites) but as yet, I haven’t been able to decrypt anything that is alleged to be hidden. In the case of the illegals, they had special software installed on laptops given to them by Moscow Centre. It turns out that these laptops and the schemes that they were using didn’t always work for the agents but, in many cases, had it not been for the surveillance by the FBI, this particular method of data passing might not have been seen.


Overall, the technology today is neat but as in the case of the AD HOC networking over WIFI, I have to wonder about their choice here. I mean it wasn’t all that long ago that the CIA had a fiasco wth a “WIFI” enabled faux rock in a park in Moscow. The rock was supposed to be able to transfer data onto a CF type card from a PDA or phone that the asset would pass by. As the technology failed, the KGB noticed that there were people wandering around looking to connect to this rock. When they did a search they got the rock and later the asset trying to connect to the faulty device. So much for the technological approach.

When it works it works great.. When it fails, you end up in Lubyanka…

Tradecraft: Tried and True

Meanwhile, some of the illegals seem to have perfected the tradecraft side of the work by performing brush passes with operatives from the Russian consulate as well as infiltrate and exfiltrate out of other countries using bogus passports etc. It seems that perhaps though, that the FBI caught on to the group however and exploited poor tradecraft practices to catch onto the whole of the operation. In one case the handler from the consulate took 3 hours of evasion practices to elude any possible surveillance only to be compromised by the fact that the “illegal” already was under surveillance… OOPS.

The meetings that are mentioned in the complaint though show how much tradecraft the group was using to perform their meetings. These included marking, dead drops, and of course the brush passes with pass phrases like “Didn’t I meet you in Bangkok in 1990?” So those of you who think that its just cliche, its not really… Even in todays technological world these practices are kept up BECAUSE the technology is so easily watched from remote ala the NSA. Of course it was that technological FAIL along with the poor practices of basic information security that caught them in the end.

Kinda funny really.. I mean how often do I moan and wail about all of this huh and here it is that very thing that pops a group of spies for Russia.

Funny…

Meanwhile some of the “old school” techniques still pervade…

Numbers Stations and Rapid Burst Transmissions Making a Comeback

When some of the houses/apartments were black bagged, the operatives found that the illegals were not only using “rapid burst” radio technology, but also the old old school technique of “Numbers Stations” to get their orders as well as report their data to Moscow Centre. I imagine that in the case of the rapid burst technology, they were in close proximity of either other operatives that they did not know about, or they were in fact close enough to the consulates that they could burst their data to their arrays on the roof.

This stuff is really old school and I have mentioned before that the number of “numbers” stations has increased over time since the internet age took over because this technology, properly implemented, is sure fire and hard to detect. After all, how many of us have short wave radios in their homes huh? The burst technology though is a little more circumspect and can be detected, but since it has not been in vogue for some time, I doubt many agencies are looking for it. Perhaps a HAM radio operator in the area might have picked up on it but it was the surveillance team that mentions “noise” that seems to be radio transmissions.

It just goes to show that sometimes the new tech just doesn’t cut it. You need to go old school.

Espionage 2010, Pooty Poot, The Bear Never Left

In the end, I expect to be hearing more about this story in the news. There will likely be the expuslions of diplomats from the Russian consulates in the US as well as the ongoing coverage of the trials. What I am wondering about though is that the FBI charged these guys with smaller charges rather than official “espionage”

This makes me think that there is much more to this tale behind the scenes that we will eventually get in dribs and drabs. I personally think that the illegals that we caught really made a dent in the security of the nation. The complaint does not mention any high level connections that would be bad enough to consider this operation as a whole to be damaging. However, if the group is in fact bigger or as we know, there are others out there, just who have they compromised? Remember that in the complaint you can see Moscow Center asking about compromisable assets. What they really wanted was to go old school and get the dirt on someone juicy and turn them… and given Washington’s habit of nasty behavior with pages or toe tapping in airport mens rooms, I can see they had a rich target environment.

All of this also makes it so ironic that the operation had been ongoing since at least the Clinton administration. When “W” looked into the soul of Pooty Poot, he wasn’t in fact seeing anything there. George, he was PWN-ing you as you gave him the reach around.. and liked it. The Bear never left my friends and anyone who thought we were all friends with rainbows and puppies where Russia was concerned is seriously deluded.

The only thing that has changed is that the American conciousness became… Unconcious to conspicuous wealth and reality TV.

I too pine for the cold war…Looks like its back on.

So in conclusion here are some questions that I have:

  • Why was this operation rolled up now?
  • How did the FBI catch on to these illegals?
  • Who is “FARMER”
  • Who is “PARROT”
  • Why the charges of not telling the AG that the illegals were.. well illegal and not actually charged with “espionage”
  • Why did “C” want the operatives to buy ASUS EEE PC’s?
  • What steg program did they have?
  • When will we be expelling the 3 consulate “secretaries” in NYC?

You can read the “almost full” complaint here

CoB