Top Russian spy ring technology screw-ups

Alleged Russian spies arrested last month in cities around the United States seemed to be lacking in spycraft and in urgent need of some IT expertise

  • Alleged Russian spies arrested last month in cities around the United States seemed to be lacking in spycraft and in urgent need of some IT expertise, based on some of the gaffes they made. They also used some technologies effectively. Here is a summary of their efforts as revealed in court filings against them.

  • The most glaring error was leaving the 27-character password to a laptop sitting around on a piece of paper for federal agents to find during a search. It led to cracking the ring's steganography efforts and finding secret messages in Web images.

  • By checking out the browsing history of a compromised spy laptop, investigators found sites that contained images that held stegonagraphic messages that they decrypted using a proprietary steganography application also found on the laptop.

  • The spies set up ad hoc wireless networks in coffeeshops, book stores and other public locations to communicate with each other without actually talking or even seeing the other party. Federal agents used a wireless sniffer to determine that machines with the same two MAC addresses communicated repeatedly.

  • In order to get a laptop replaced, it had to first be sent to Russia via Rome by a courier who changed passports along the way, then returned to the United States -- a process that took three months. Apparently the machine received custom modifications while in Russia. When it was delivered to the spy who would use it, he was told that if he found any problems, they could be taken care of in six months.

  • One spy suspect, Anna Chapman, turned over her laptop to an undercover U.S. agent for repair rather than hanging onto it until her next trip to Russia. That transfer was made days before her arrest in New York City.

  • One of the suspects complained that his netbook would hang or freeze before completing application functions. "They must have been running [Windows] XP," says security consultant John Pironti. "That's all netbooks were running at that time, and who hasn't found running custom stuff on XP to be challenging?"

  • The spy ring used radiograms -- messages using enciphered Morse Code sent on multiple frequencies to avoid detection -- that were then deciphered using a code book handwritten in a spiral notebook that was found during the search of a suspect's home and photographed by federal agents.

  • The spy ring also used more traditional methods of sending secret messages including invisible ink that was used to make notes that were delivered to Russian officials in South America.

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