Cyber attacks, drones and satellites may have replaced tiny cameras and poisoned umbrella tips, but some of the old spying methods still come in handy.
SPYSCAPE delves into the tools of the tradecraft, from the quirky to the very latest eye-in-the-sky technology.
Q isn’t just a Bond character. British spies really do conjure up incredible inventions. The Welbike folding motorcycle at SPYSCAPE’s New York City HQ was the smallest ever used by Britain. It was dropped in containers that had a parachute pack and a ‘percussion head’ designed to minimize damage on landing. Allied paratroopers were supposed to use it to move quickly behind enemy lines but that was easier said than done - the Welbike has no suspension or front brakes and a fuel capacity of less than a gallon. If a Brit was stopped by a German, the enemy might shoot first and ask questions later.
Back in the 1970s the CIA tested a very early drone, an unmanned aerial vehicle ‘insectothopter’ disguised as a dragonfly. A microphone the size of a bead hides in its head. A watchmaker helped build the device, which had a miniature fluidic oscillator for the wings and a small amount of propellant-produced gas. It also had a laser to work as the data link for the audio sensor payload. Unfortunately, the dragonfly wasn’t good in the wind (something you would have thought was pretty obvious!), so the CIA dropped the dragonfly, though its appetite to develop new robotics was undeterred.
Charlie, the CIA’s robotic catfish, was designed in the 1990s to test the possibility of unmanned, underwater vehicles. Charlie's tail conceals a pressure hull, ballast system, communications and a propulsion system. The CIA isn’t saying if Charlie was used to gather intelligence or water samples, but it's likely Charlie didn’t mind swimming against the tide.
This silent, High Standard .22 was used during WWII and the Cold War by US spies. The long-barrelled weapon was flash-less and silencer-equipped. It was so quiet President Franklin D. Roosevelt didn't hear it when the pistol was fired multiple times in the Oval Office, according to the book Of Spies and Stratagems. The CIA Museum displays the weapon with a few words of advice: ‘Ideal for use in close spaces or for eliminating sentries.’
Intelligence gathering has two goals: accessing information and transmitting it safely for analysis - dead drops, ciphers, coded texts or any other encryption method might be used. The Germans used Enigma cipher machines during WWII. They resembled typewriters but could scramble messages about troop movements and other top-secret intelligence. The CIA and German spy agency BND took encryption one step further, however. After WWII, the agencies set up a Swiss company, Crypto AG, and made millions selling encryption equipment to more than 100 intelligence agencies, including Iran’s. The catch was that the CIA and BND had added backdoors into the products so they could eavesdrop on the agencies. The ruse was exposed in a 2020 investigation involving the Washington Post and other media.
In 1940 Alan Turing’s Bombe was the cutting edge of technology, the world's first programmable digital computer built in secret during WWII at Bletchley Park. The Bombe could check Enigma rotor settings thousands of times faster than any human, yet British intelligence agents still had to man the Bombes every day to narrow the likely settings, allowing cryptologists to decrypt German messages. An American team also developed a four-rotor Bombe and by the end of WWII, more than 100 were built by the National Cash Register Corp in Dayton, Ohio.
While it may be impossible to imagine now, in 2006 Britain’s top-secret intelligence-gathering involved planting a fake rock in Moscow. British spies communicated with Russian contacts using pocket-sized computers to download digital data to an electronic gadget inside the plastic ‘rock’. The download took seconds and could be done from 20 meters away but the ‘rock’ had to be opened to retrieve data. Eventually, the Brits were caught red-handed. Jonathan Powell, former chief of staff to PM Tony Blair, finally admitted to spying after six years: "There's not much you can say, you can't really call up and say 'I'm terribly sorry about that, it won't happen again.' I mean, they had us bang to rights.” Vladimir Putin said he wouldn’t expel the British agents in case the UK sent capable ones in their place.
Hacking is often associated with Anonymous and their signature Guy Fawkes masks, a shadowy group that seemed to reappear in 2020. Hackers aren’t just rebels, however. Government-trained spies are blamed for two SolarWinds attacks in 2020, the largest and possibly most devastating hacks on the US government in history. Russia and China are accused of hacking the National Nuclear Security Administration, the federal payroll and more. A year after the hack, the US still didn’t know how much information was stolen.
Phone hacking often involves gaining unauthorized access to cell phones, either by intercepting calls or accessing voicemail, but are apps also vulnerable? Facebook is suing Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group claiming it helped spies hack 1,400 phones through WhatsApp by exploiting the video calling system to send malware to the users’ cell phones. NSO denies it, saying it provides technology to intelligence agencies and police forces to fight terrorism and serious crime.