Russian spy ring needed some serious IT help

A 27-word password is left on a piece of paper

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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.

That was last Saturday. The same day in Washington, a second undercover U.S. agent -- UC-2 -- met with another suspected Russian spy -- SEMENKO -- and discussed his experience with ad hoc wireless networking. "SEMENKO responded that he wanted UC-2 to "figure out" the problems with the communications via the private wireless network."

Earlier, in describing his reaction to a successful wireless transfer, SEMENKO said he was, "like … totally happy."

The spies also used radiograms to communicate -- with messages being sent over short-wave frequencies in cipher and then decoded using a key written by hand in a spiral notebook U.S. officials found during a search of a suspect's home.

Audio recordings in one spy suspect's home picked up his voice saying: "I am going to write in invisible," referring to a message he planned to send to Russian officials in South America.

Read more about wide area network in Network World's Wide Area Network section.

This story, "Russian spy ring needed some serious IT help" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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