Spy Tech: Unshredding Documents

Bureaucracies generate paper, usually lots of paper. Anything you consider private — especially anything that could get you in trouble — should go in a “burn box” which is usually a locked trash can that is periodically emptied into an incinerator. However, what about a paper shredder? Who hasn’t seen a movie or TV show where the office furiously shreds papers as the FBI, SEC, or some other three-letter-agency is trying to crash the door down?

That might have been the scene in the late 1980s when Germany reunified. The East German Ministry of State Security — known as the Stasi — had records of unlawful activity and, probably, information about people of interest. The staff made a best effort to destroy these records, but they did not quite complete their task.

The collapsing East German government ordered documents destroyed, and many were pulped or burned. However, many of the documents were shredded by hand, stuffed into bags, and were awaiting final destruction. There were also some documents destroyed by the interim government in 1990. Today there are about 16,000 of these bags remaining, each with 2,500 to 3,000 pieces of pages in them.

Machine-shredded documents were too small to recover, but the hand-shredded documents should be possible to reconstruct. After all, they do it all the time in spy movies, right? With modern computers and vision systems, it should be a snap.

You’d think so, anyway.

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Spy Tech: CIA Masks In Five Minutes Or Less

You know the old trope: James Bond is killed but it turns out to be someone else in an incredibly good-looking Sean Connery mask. Mission: Impossible and Scooby Doo regularly had some variation of the theme. But, apparently, truth is stranger than fiction. The CIA has — or at least had — a chief of disguise. A former holder of that office now works for the International Spy Museum and has some very interesting stories about the real masks CIA operatives would use in the field.

According to the video you can see below, the agency enlisted the help of Hollywood — particularly the mask maker from Planet of the Apes — to help them with this project. Of course, in the movies, you can take hours to apply a mask and control how it is lit, how closely the camera examines it, and if something goes wrong you just redo the scene. If you are buying secret plans and your nose falls off, it would probably be hard to explain.

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Spy Tech: Tiny Spy Plane Becomes Cold War Prize

What looks like something famous, is much smaller, and is embroiled in a web of cold war cloak-and-dagger intrigue? It sounds like the answer could be Mini-Me from the Austin Powers movies, but we were actually thinking of the D-21 supersonic spy drone. Never heard of it? It didn’t have a very long service life, but it was a tiny little unmanned SR-71 and is part of a spy story that would fit right in with James Bond, if not Austin Powers.

The little plane had a wingspan of only 19 feet — compared to the SR-71’s 56 foot span — and was 42 feet long. It could fly at about Mach 3.3 at 95,000 feet and had a range of around 3,500 miles. It shared many characteristics with its big brother including the use of titanium and a design to present a low RADAR cross-section.

The Spy Who Photographed Me

With today’s global economy and increased international cooperation, it is hard to remember just how tense the late 1960s were. Governments wanted to see what other governments were up to. Satellite technology would eventually fill that role, but even though spy satellites first appeared in 1959, they used film that had to be retrieved by an airplane as it fell from the sky and then processed. Not exactly real time. More effective satellites would have to wait for better imaging technology — see the video below for just how bad those old satellite images were. That left spy planes to do the bulk of the work.

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Spy Tech: How An Apollo Capsule Landed In Michigan After A Layover In The USSR

There’s an Apollo module on display in Michigan and its cold-war backstory is even more interesting than its space program origins.

Everyone who visits the Van Andel Museum Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan is sure to see the Apollo Command Module¬†flanking the front entrance. Right now it’s being used as a different kind of capsule: a time capsule they’ll open in 2076 (the American tricentennial). If you look close though, this isn’t an actual Command Module but what they call a “boilerplate.”

Technically, these were mass simulators made cheaply for certain tests and training purposes. A full spacecraft costs a lot of money but these — historically made out of boilerplate steel — could be made with just the pieces necessary and using less expensive materials. What you might not know is that the boilerplate at the Van Ardel — BP 1227 — has a cold war spy history unlike any other boilerplate in the fleet.

The early life of BP 1227 is a little sketchy. It appears the Navy was using it for recovery training somewhere between the Azores and the Bay of Biscay in early 1969. We don’t know for sure if the picture to the left is BP 1227 or not. Comparing it to the one at the museum, it probably isn’t, but then again the museum’s does have a fresh paint job and possibly a top cap. Regardless, the picture to the left was from 1966 in the Atlantic, giving us an idea of how boilerplate capsules were put into service.

In those days — the height of the cold war — Naval ships were often followed by Soviet “fishing trawlers.” These were universally understood to be spy ships — Auxiliary, General Intelligence or AGI vessels.

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Spy Tech: Stealing A Moon Probe

Ever hear of the Soviet Luna program? In the west, it was often called Lunik, if you heard about it at all. Luna was a series of unmanned moon probes launched between 1959 and 1976. There were at least 24 of them, and 15 were successful. Most of the failures were not reported or named. Luna craft have a number of firsts, but the one we are interested in is that it may have been the first space vehicle to be stolen — at least temporarily — in a cold war caper worthy of a James Bond novel.

Luna-1 Payload

Around 1960, the Soviet Union toured several countries with exhibits of their industrial and technological accomplishments. One of the items on display was the upper stage of a Luna vehicle with windows cut out to show the payload inside. At first, the CIA suspected the vehicle was just a model. But they wanted to be sure.

The story is laid out in a CIA document from 1967 that was only declassified in 1994. Even then, the document has a lot of redactions in it. The paper is sparse on how they managed it, but when the exhibit closed — somehow — a group of intelligence¬†operatives wound up inside the exhibition hall alone for 24 hours.

What they found was surprising. While the engine and most of the avionics were gone, the vehicle was the real article. They took measurements¬†and photos, hoping that analysis would reveal more about the vehicle’s performance characteristics.

Here’s where you start getting into the redacted material. The team was able to get something from the probe — probably machine tooling marks — but there wasn’t enough detail to identify where and how they were made. They decided to get a team specializing in this kind of analysis to examine it more closely.

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Spy Tech: Nonlinear Junction Detectors

If you ever watch a spy movie, you’ve doubtlessly seen some nameless tech character sweep a room for bugs using some kind of detector and either declare it clean or find the hidden microphone in the lamp. Of course, as a hacker, you have to start thinking about how that would work. If you had a bug that transmits all the time, that’s easy. The lamp probably shouldn’t be emitting RF energy all the time, so that’s easy to detect and a dead give away. But what if the bug were more sophisticated? Maybe it wakes up every hour and beams its data home. Or perhaps it records to memory and doesn’t transmit anything. What then?

High-end bug detectors have another technique they use that claims to be able to find active device junctions. These are called Nonlinear Junction Detectors (NLJD). Spy agencies in the United States, Russian and China have been known to use them and prisons employ them to find cell phones. Their claim to fame is the device doesn’t have to be turned on for detection to occur. You can see a video of a commercial NLJD, below

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