We recently brought you a first look at the Argo artifacts used in a CIA operation in the 1980s, during which the CIA worked with Canadians to evacuate American diplomats out of Iran. TechnoBuffalo had the chance to sit down with the owner of those artifacts, and many others in the Times Square Spy: The Secret World of Espionage exhibit, H.K. Melton, to discuss the world of espionage. Melton is a world renowned author and spy historian, and he discussed what being a spy is like and how technology and the Internet have changed espionage forever.
You may be wondering, what does this have to do with tech or gadgets? A lot, in fact, because the information that Melton discusses is largely obtained using gadgetry and special drops of information. It also involves tools, disguises and, at times, fake background stories, like we showed you in our Argo article.
Can you explain, briefly, what makes espionage so important?
“The world of espionage is one that’s multifaceted,” Melton explained to TechnoBuffalo. “It is one that has dimensions and complexities and nuances that affect virtually everything we do. The world we live in is affected by the clandestine operations by the men and women that serve in intelligence and counterintelligence services that try to protect us from attacks from abroad.”
What’s the difference between a spy, an agent and an intelligence officer?
“The men and women who work for our intelligence purposes are our intelligence officers. Their role is to recruit spies, usually foreign people who have access to secrets that we want. The intelligence officer is a case officer who manages people. James Bond wouldn’t last four minutes in the real world. Case officers don’t do that, they live in the shadows, they manage people.”
What’s the history of tech and spying?
“For the tech world, let me try to offer some perspective as to why I think where we are in this point in history is very interesting. We are at a point where the question between what constitutes between a superpower – is it the country with the biggest guns or is the country with the biggest economy, or the most scientists and the best R&D? Is it more important to steal the secrets for a Russian tank or would you rather have your analysts project the wheat output from the Ukraine in 2016? The wheat output may be more significant, because if there’s famine, it could lead to disruption in the government and have consequences that far outweigh the plans for a tank.”
“Industrial espionage is now being conducted against us technologically with state sponsorship. This is one of the things the Russians have been doing since the 1920s, early 1930s. It has grown in sophistication. “
Is Q real?
“Have you seen the new James Bond movies? The real Q is my co-author Bob Wallace. He is America’s Q. We wrote a book called Spycraft. It’s the secret history of how the CIA created the gadgets that essentially won the Cold War and got us into the really good position where we are now. The last chapter is about the future of espionage. We are at a sea change. For most of my adult life, the role of technology is espionage was the connect the agent, the spy, to the handler, who works for the intelligence offices. Spies work because they aren’t under surveillance. They have access to secrets and they aren’t under surveillance. Intelligence officers stationed in an embassy may not be known, but they are suspected. So, the FBI, we’re avidly looking. The largest group of spies in the world is here at the United Nations. You think they’re here diplomatically, but it’s the largest base of foreign spies in the world.”
What’s the role of technology in espionage?
“So, we’re constantly looking and trying to figure out who are the intelligence officers and who are they meeting with? So, covert communications is the way that a spy passes information secretly to the handler, or the handler passes requests and other information back to the spy. For decades, the purpose of technology to, once the spy had access to, say an office filing cabinet, in that filing cabinet there’s 100 documents. There’s a small miniature camera and he can photograph 100 documents, then market a signal and tell his handler where to come collect the data.”
“Now, do we want 100 pages of information or, if we have a person who is in an office, wouldn’t we rather have a thumb drive, get into the network and download a million pages and copy the entire archives? The way information is stored now makes it not only easier to use, but makes it far more vulnerable. If we can penetrate a network, we have everything. We own the kingdom. So now, where throughout history spies stole the information and technology was used to convey it, it’s now just flipped around. The spy is now often the person that is simply the conveyor of the gadget that penetrates the network, because we now select spies, not by access to the secrets that they personally can get, but the access to the networks. So the person that maintains the network or the person that hypothetically buys the office equipment, such as the printers, could embed a chip into the printer and the printer, when they plug it into the network, now infects the entire network and now you’ve got a virus in the entire network. Now the human is the carrier of technology, as opposed to the technology being the carrier of small bits of information. How information is stores determines how vulnerable it is.”
“The digital world has changed everything we know about espionage.”
How has the Internet played a role in spying?
“The internet, on one hand, is the greatest depository of information in the world. On the second hand, it gives us the incredible ability to connect people around the world using covert means. At the same time, it’s the greatest surveillance tool ever, because instead of using the physical dead drops, we can now use digital dead drops. The Russian illegals who were arrested in New York City on June, 27th, 2010. Ten were arrested, including Anna Chapman, the red head. This was a window into Russian intelligence, SVR, which is the successor to the KGB. I won’t show you CIA technology, but I’d be happy to show you Russian technology. Essentially, Anna Chapman was going to Starbucks and using a Toshiba laptop and using an ad-hoc Wi-Fi network to connect wirelessly with another Russian individual parked 100 feet away. They passed information between an encrypted tunnel and never went on the Internet. How hard would it be for us to pick that up? There are thousands of MAC addresses, every device has one. “[Melton never explained how, of course, because that's still a U.S. secret].
“So technology is changing at an incredible pace and the role of intelligence services is to simply ride the crest and utilize it to serve an intelligence purpose.”
Does the CIA ever use third-party tech?
“The CIA has a venture capital fund, called In-Q-Tel, and it invests in companies. It has some very good investments, such as Google, and it goes to a company and says we’d like to invest in you and for you to solve a problem. And maybe that problem is to create a way that lets people in China access the Internet freely. It invests very wisely, but the ultimate goal is to solve an intelligence problem. It’s a very interesting successful fund.”
“So, espionage technology that is created is a combination of men and women who simply survey the technology scene and find something that is a solution to an intelligence problem and bring it in house, get it modified and tweaked and utilize it. Also, companies come and say “we have this amazing widget that can do this,” and sometimes intelligence services say “great, we’ll fund this for you, but we want six months of exclusive use of this tool before you take it public.”
What is tradecraft?
“Tradecraft is how spies do what they do to collect information. The best tradecraft always takes advantage of the best available technology. I have a German diagram from WW1 and it shows about 17 different ways they were collecting information. They were doing everything we do today, just in more rudimentary forms. The goal doesn’t change, the method of how we collect information changes.”
Melton then walked myself and a group of friends through the Times Square Spy: The Secret World of Espionage exhibit, of which he owns a large chunk of the artifacts. We saw everything from the tools used in Afghanistan to old shoe-phones, pigeons that carried secret messages, special space suits and more. The exhibit is truly amazing, and if you ever visit New York City, I highly recommend you check it out.
Special thanks to my friend Marc Flores, who did the photography for this story.