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Russian spy ring needed some serious IT help

Tim Greene | July 1, 2010
The Russian ring charged this week with spying on the United States faced some of the common security problems that plague many companies

The spy ring had numerous technical problems, including file transfers that hung and wouldn't go through and difficulty replacing laptops when necessary. In one case, an agent was so frustrated by laptop issues that she unwittingly turned it over to an undercover FBI agent.

In another case, replacing a laptop took more than two months. A suspect bought an Asus Eee PC 1005HA-P netbook, flew with it to Rome, picked up a passport in another name, flew on to Moscow and returned with it -- a process that took from January this year to March. Presumably Moscow headquarters configured the device.

When the courier spy delivered it to another suspect, he described what to do if the laptop had problems. "…if this doesn't work we can meet again in six months," one suspect was overheard saying to another, "they don't understand what we go through over here."

Pironti says spies try to use off-the-shelf hardware and software so they don't have to rely on their spymasters for replacements, and with the possible exception of the steganography application, this ring could have done that.

One of the technical issues the ring faced was described by one suspect in a message to Moscow reporting on a meeting between two spies "A" and "M": "Meeting with M went as planned … A passed to M laptop, two flash drives, and $9K in cash. From what M described, the problem with his equipment is due to his laptop "hanging"/"freezing" before completion of the normal program run."

"They must have been running [Windows] XP," Pironti says. "That's all netbooks were running at that time, and who hasn't found running custom stuff on XP to be challenging?"

A spy suspect in New York City used her laptop to communicate with a Russian government official via an ad-hoc, peer-to-peer wireless network on six occasions this year -- always on Wednesdays. She set herself up in a coffeeshop, a book store and other unspecified locations with her laptop. U.S. agents sniffed her wireless network and identified two devices -- the same two MAC addresses each time -- establishing connections that U.S. agents think were used to communicate, the court papers say.

Apparently she was having trouble making connections with the other laptop, and in frustration turned it over to a U.S. undercover agent for repairs.

At a meeting with that undercover agent, she indicated that she was having trouble setting up the wireless connection. "Everything is cool apart from connection," she says on a recording made of the meeting.

The U.S. undercover agent responds, "I am not the technical guy…I don't know how to fix it, but if you tell me, I can pass it up." He then offers to take the laptop to the consulate for repair, and points out that she could take it with her to Moscow when she goes and get it fixed there. "It would be more convenient if I gave you it," she responds.


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