Saturday, August 18, 2007

Spooks, Gadgets, and "The Bourne Ultimatum" Part II

What really got me thinking about what the CIA and NSA can and can't get away with while I was watching "The Bourne Ultimatum" was the CIA's problems with the kidnapping of Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr a/k/a Abu Omar in Italy. They succeeded in kidnapping him from an Italian street and whisking him to the Aviano Air Base, but it wasn't exactly a complete success. Apparently, the CIA isn't as spooky as we thought or would hope. Twenty-six Americans and five Italians have been indicted for the kidnapping or, as the CIA calls it, "extraordinary rendition." Their gadgets and technical prowess might also not be that sophisticated.

Italian prosecutors apparently tracked and identified the CIA agents involved via their use of cell phones. They were not tracked in real time. The prosecutors apparently identified cell phones that were responsible for unusually high traffic during and near the extraordinary rendition , and not all of these phones were registered to aliases. The phones were even used to call the CIA headquarters, the local CIA station chief, and the commander of Aviano. In the CIA's defense, they may have had the cooperation of Italian intelligence officials, and weren't trying to hide. Nevertheless, operations like this are potentially embarrassing to the U.S. and its allies and of questionable legality so why not take basic precautions? Why not use prepaid phones like every drug dealer, thug, and terrorist?

You would hope that the CIA has encrypted satellite phones for agents to use. There are also encrypted cell phones commercially available. Of course, encrypted cell phones might actually increase suspicion and make a covert operation even more obvious. After all, the Italians weren't eavesdropping on the CIA, they simply tracked the numbers called to and from each cell phone. Encrypted satellite phones would both prevent tracing through cell phone records and prevent eavesdropping. However, if they don't have them or if they're just looking for a lower tech solution, then prepaid cell phones would be the answer.

Imagine if the CIA had used prepaid phones exclusively in their efforts to grab Abu Omar. Just pay cash for the phones so they can't be traced to individuals. Other operatives could collect them in advance a few at a time so as to not arouse suspicion. The phones would best be purchased by agents not associated with the operation from all over the country or Europe, as this would make it even more difficult to connect related calls. This would make it harder to gather up retail store surveillance images to connect particular individuals to each phone. Perhaps several dummy retailers could be created to purchase the phones in bulk from a variety of companies wholesale. Each morning remove new phones from the shrink wrap, exchange numbers, and hit the streets At the end of the day, the phones go in the trash and the process begins again the next day. Now the Italians would have dozens of different numbers to trace and all of them would be dead ends. Every day calls from a new set of prepaid phones would create a new pattern of calls that would not match the previous days calls.

Better yet -- don't throw the phones away. Give them to passing teenagers, leave them on cafe' tables, leave them in the backseat of taxis, and other places where they're likely to be "stolen." Give some anonymously to charities . The point being to increase the number of calls and the geographic range of calls for each phone. This makes it even more unlikely that they could be ferreted out as part of a pattern. If a phone becomes identified with an operation under investigation, then the investigating authorities would be kept busy tracking down clueless teenagers and their friends. It seems one of the things the Italians looked for was phones with SIM cards that were no longer used within days of the kidnapping.

Speaking of SIM cards, perhaps the CIA could simply have a supply of prepaid SIM cards to swap in and out of the phones. A large number of SIM cards would be easier to hide than an equal number of phones. Dozens could be kept in a plastic baggie. Each time the SIM cards were changed, the phone would be identified by a different number. SIM cards could easily be flushed down toilets, tossed in storm drains, burned, cut up, and even swallowed.

Any phone or SIM used to call anyone associated with CIA headquarters, or other U.S. installations should be used once and discarded immediately. Likewise, any phone used to call any cooperative local official would be used once and then discarded. It might even be a good idea to make these calls from distant locations. Call someone on the other side of town, or another country or who is driving around in a car, and then have them relay the messages to the people you don't want connected with the operation using a completely different prepaid phone that is immediately discarded. If the person tracking you knows that you've called Langley or Aviano, then they'll know to track that phone number. A call to another anonymous cell phone in the city is unlikely to arouse suspicion. If the phone called from the suspect phone is not used to place the sensitive call but rather another prepaid phone, then the number called is a dead end. If the phone used to call U.S. or foreign officials is used once, the trail begins and ends with the one call. If the phone is then left somewhere to be stolen, then tracing calls from that number leads to a whole new set of false leads.

I doubt that the Italians could have pieced together the convoluted trail created by using dozens of prepaid phones or SIM cards for limited periods of time, and then allowing them to be "stolen" or redistributed.

Spooks, Gadgets, and "The Bourne Ultimatum" Part I

I went to see "The Bourne Ultimatum" a second time last night. Lest you think that I loved it so much that I had to see it twice --- the first time was with just my daughter and friends, and the second time was with my wife and son. However, it is a good movie and I definitely recommend it. It was almost as entertaining the second time as the first. As usual, I picked up clues and connections the second time around that I missed the first time. It is a high energy, action packed movie full of equally exciting foot, scooter, motorcycle, and car chases. The frequent use of jittery handheld camera shots even for close ups combined with fast cuts of little pieces of action might leave you feeling motion sick, but it all adds to the feeling of constantly being on edge. But this isn't about the movie, this is about the CIA, NSA, and gadgets. If you'd like a collection of reviews, visit .
In the movie, cell phone calls are intercepted, closed circuit cameras are hijacked, compact digital camera images are viewed from the other side of the world in real time, people are tracked in real time, innocent people are assaulted in broad daylight, and a lot of other things happen that leave you wondering --- can they really do that?

Events are set in motion when a British journalist mentions "blackbriar" on his cell phone in London. This is picked up by a CIA substation (i.e., listening post) and a top level black ops section in New York is notified in minutes and provided with a full recording of the conversation. Can they do that? I believe the answer is "maybe, sort of..." There is no doubt that the US government operates programs around the world where they listen to electronic communications. The Echelon program is known to identify key words and other data. However, it is doubtful that this can be done instantly in real time for random communications as opposed to tapping a specific known target. There must be millions of telephone conversations in London every day. The word "blackbriar" gets 32,400 hits when you Google it. The task of instantly identifying one person who mentions the word "blackbriar" and then tapping every phone connected with him would simply be too massive, especially when millions and millions of communications are monitored. Note the frustration of the FBI over the flood of "tips" generated by the NSA listening programs in this ACLU article. Could they do it? Maybe but it would take days, weeks, or months to be identified and followed up most likely.

Everyone knows that London is perhaps the most surveilled major city in the world with closed circuit TV (CCTV) everywhere. But could a CIA post in New York City take control of these cameras and operate them from New York City? I doubt it. It would take the cooperation of the British authorities in charge of the cameras, or you would have to hack into the control system. Although the U.S. and U.K. intelligence agencies cooperate, it is doubtful that the U.K. authorities would cede complete control of their CCTV system to the U.S. If the system is even connected to the Internet or could otherwise be hacked, it would undoubtedly set off alarm bells when the cameras started whizzing around scanning the crowd and following people all by themselves. I also believe that there would be too many technical hurdles for a top secret CIA post in New York to control cameras on the other side of the Atlantic. What happens in the movie would be a disaster for the U.K. and the U.S. as it results in the obviously professional assassination of a journalist who has already published articles about Bourne and is known to be investigating the CIA. This one doesn't pass the smell test.

In a number of scenes, CIA agents employ compact digital cameras to transmit images around the world to New York City. Can they do this? Maybe. We don't know how they do this in the movie. Is it via satellite? Is it via cell phone technology? We just don't know. However, the cameras used are very small and have no external antennas. They look a lot like this Sanyo. The U.S. government might be able to make an ultracompact video camera that transmits via cell phone technology. I doubt it could make one that small that would transmit in real time via satellite. A compact satellite telephone looks like this. Note the antenna. You wouldn't need a keypad, or a screen if it called only one number when activated so maybe it could be made smaller, but you'd also need room for the camera systems so maybe, maybe not. However, even if this could be done, would you want to? Would you want a video record of your break ins, murders, and kidnappings flying around the ether via either cell phone or satellite? I wouldn't. As I'll mention later, cell phones have caused the CIA enough trouble.

I also don't believe that CIA operatives would run through public places brandishing guns, stopping buses, shooting at police, ramming cars, and assaulting people in plain view. This would create a public relations nightmare and would attract too much attention, especially if a journalist was then killed nearby with a single bullet to the head under very difficult circumstances. There is also the moral problem of getting a relatively large number of people to participate in random killings, assaults, and serious bodily injury to journalists, fellow agents, people waiting for buses, police officers, bystanders, random motorists, and others who haven't been charged with any crime or wrongdoing of any sort. It is one thing to target known terrorists sworn to destroy the U.S. and another to willy nilly order assassinations and run the very real risk of killing, maiming, and injuring bystanders. We know from the Italian kidnapping case and others that the CIA can efficiently and quietly grab people, but, as we'll see in my next post, they aren't so good at covering their tracks.