Saturday, August 18, 2007

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.

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