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Of Spies and Casinos

[photo: liebeslakritze via Flickr]

Many have forgotten the case of Russian spies arrested in the U.S.

Not the ten from the Illegals Program sleeper cell spy ring rounded up in 2010, whose integration into the U.S. formed the backbone of the cable drama, The Americans.

No, the ones in New York City who attempted to recruit college students and collect economic intelligence.

Three in total were arrested a year ago January — Evgeny Buryakov, Igor Sporyshev and Victor Podobnyy — the latter two shipped out as they were here under diplomatic visas while the first was prosecuted and jailed.

The story is rather interesting though it didn’t garner much attention outside New York. The spies were tasked with not only recruiting but gathering intelligence in the financial sector about market destabilization and the status of development and investment in alternative energy.

Buryakov, who was not under diplomatic protection, wasn’t the sharpest pencil in the box. He was a little put out at having a less than glamorous gig, and he was rather imprudent. He was recorded easily, and his words used as evidence against him.

One interesting bit was thinly fleshed out in the USDOJ’s complaint.

Buryakov toured casinos in Atlantic City.

But which casinos?

In July 2014, a confidential contact working on behalf of the FBI, “posed as the representative of a wealthy investor looking to work with Bank-1 [the Russian bank for which Buryakov posed as an employee] to develop casinos in Russia,” and approached Buryakov about casino development in Russia. A tour of Atlantic City casinos was taken in August.

Combing through the complaint looking for the colleges from which they attempted to recruit revealed no mention of Trump University.

But the casinos visited aren’t clear. The Trump Plaza (closed September 2014) or the Trump Taj Mahal (closed October 2016) can’t be ruled out as sites visited by Buryakov — the Plaza closed only a few weeks later.

The skepticism with which they viewed the casino gambit was amusing (excerpt from complaint, p. 23-24):

It was a trap, just as suspected; did the confidential source not give off the right vibe, or were the Russians skeptical of any investment in casinos developed in Russia? Trump, after all, didn’t get his Trump Towers Moscow off the ground even after his 2013 trip for the Miss World Pageant. Did the skepticism worry the FBI they might lose their targets? Or did the FBI finally have enough of toying with these guys and decide it was time to drop the hammer? Was some other trigger which forced the FBI to wrap up this investigation?

A few other points worth noting:

• “Others known and unknown” were also involved in spying or supporting spies but were not included in the warrant according to the complaint (ex: CC-1 and CC-2 in complaint). Who were they and where are they now? Has the FBI continued to watch them? Were any of them among the Russians who were escorted out of the U.S. after former president Obama announced new sanctions this past December?

• “And then Putin even tried to justify that they weren’t even tasked to work, they were sleeper cells in case of martial law,” Victor Podobnyy remarked in a conversation about the Illegals Program sleeper cells. What did he mean by, “in case of martial law”? Is this a continuing concern with regard to any remaining undetected sleeper cells?

• A “leading Russian state-owned news organization” was mentioned in the complaint, “used for intelligence gathering purposes.” Which news outlet was this? How did this news organization figure into advanced methods used by this operation? It would be interesting to know if this was RT (formerly Russia Today) given Michael Flynn’s and Jill Stein’s attendance at an RT event in December 2015.

• The spies used an office in Manhattan for conveying information to their superiors. How was this done apart from phone calls; what technology and networks if any were involved?

There’s an important bit about aeronautics, but I’ll tackle that in another post. It’s important enough to be broken out on its own.

Oh, one last thing about this case: timing.

— On January 21, 2016 UK’s public inquest announced its final conclusions into the PO-210 poisoning death of Alexander Litivinenko, attributing the murder to orders from the top of Russia’s FSB — including Vladimir Putin.

— The next day, January 22,  the UK froze the assets of the escaped henchmen accused of the poisoning while seeking their extradition.

— A sealed complaint and a request for warrants were filed in Southern District of New York for the three Russian spies on January 23, 2016.

— The arrests of the spies was reported publicly on January 26, 2016.

These events on either side of the Atlantic didn’t happen in a vacuum. The casinos’ tour and the hand-off of government documents happened nearly six months before the complaint and warrants were filed and issued. But the Litvinenko inquest conclusion and the arrests happened within a couple of days — mere hours apart.

It shouldn’t be surprising to find coordinated retaliation occurred against both the UK and the US.

Long Island Iced Tea

I love maps. They often reveal things quickly and simply in a way text cannot. Like this map I’ve pulled together showing two points recently in the news.

To the right, Groton, Connecticut, where the U.S. has a naval facility

To the left, Glen Cove, New York — the location of a waterfront compound, Killenworth Mansion, owned for decades by Russia. The site was used for electronic spying according to the Reagan administration. A second compound, Norwich House, located five miles away in Upper Brookville, was vacated in December after former president Obama issued new sanctions on Russia in response to alleged interference in U.S. 2016 presidential election.

Multiple news reports yesterday noted a Russian spy ship “loitering” approximately 30 miles south of Groton, near Long Island’s shoreline, in international waters.

But none of them mentioned the ship was approximately 60-80 miles from the site of the Russian government compounds.

Huh. What an interesting coincidence that this Russian vessel didn’t loiter near any of more than a dozen naval facilities along the east coast. Granted, Groton is home to the Naval Submarine Base New London, home to the Navy’s subs on the east coast.

But is this submarine base more interesting than any of the Navy facilities in Maryland, Virginia, Florida? Not to mention Rhode Island, South Carolina or Georgia. Nor did the spy ship hang around near the other waterfront facility located in Maryland that Russia was forced to vacate in December.

It’s almost if the Russians left something behind on Long Island and were looking for it.

Or listening for it.

UPDATE — 5:38 p.m. EST: Here’s another nifty map depicting existing and planned submarine communications cables landed in northeast US. Fun stuff! I wonder which one carries the most financial data to/from Wall Street to overseas markets…

Submarine communications cables, northeast US, 2016 (via Greg’s Cable Map at cablemap.info)

Monday: A Different Ark

[Caution: some content in this video is NSFW] Today’s Monday Movie is a short film by Patrick Cederberg published three years ago. This short reflects the love life of a youth whose age is close to that of my two kids. A few things have changed in terms of technology used — I don’t think either Facebook or Chatroulette is as popular now with high school and college students as it was, but the speed of internet-mediated relationships is the same. It’s dizzying to keep up with kids who are drowning in information about everything including their loved ones.

Their use of social media to monitor each other’s commitment is particularly frightening; it’s too easy to misinterpret content and make a snap decision as this movie shows so well. Just as scary is the ease with which one may violate the privacy of another and simply move on.

Imagine if this youngster Noah had to make a snap decision about someone with whom they weren’t emotionally engaged. Imagine them using their lifetime of video gaming and that same shallow, too-rapid decision-making process while piloting a drone.

Boom.

Goodness knows real adults with much more life experience demonstrate bizarre and repeated lapses in judgment using technology. Why should we task youths fresh out of high school and little education in ethics and philosophy with using technology like remote surveillance and weaponized drones?

Speaking of drones, here’s an interview with GWU’s Hugh Gusterson on drone warfare including his recommendations on five of books about drones.

A, B, C, D, USB…

  • USBKiller no longer just a concept (Mashable) –$56 will buy you a USB device which can kill nearly any laptop with a burst of electricity. The only devices known to be immune: those without USB ports. The manufacturer calls this device a “testing device.” Apparently the score is Pass/Fail and mostly Fail.
  • Malware USBee jumps air-gapped computers (Ars Technica) — Same researchers at Israel’s Ben Gurion University who’ve been working on the potential to hack air-gapped computers have now written software using a USB device to obtain information from them.
  • Hydropower charger for USB devices available in 2017 (Digital Trends) — Huh. If I’m going to do a lot of off-grid camping, I guess I should consider chipping into the Kickstarter for this device which charges a built-in 6,400mAh battery. Takes 4.5 hours to charge, though — either need a steady stream of water, or that’s a lot of canoe paddling.

Hackety-hack, don’t walk back

  • Arizona and Illinois state elections systems breached (Reuters) — An anonymous official indicated the FBI was looking for evidence other states may also have been breached. The two states experienced different levels of breaches — 200K voters’ personal data had been downloaded from Illinois, while a single state employee’s computer had been compromised with malware in Arizona, according to Reuters’ report. A report by CSO Online explains the breaches as outlined in an leaked FBI memo in greater detail; the attacks may have employed a commonly-used website vulnerability testing application to identify weak spots in the states’ systems. Arizona will hold its primary election tomorrow, August 30.
  • Now-defunct Australian satellite communications provider NewSat lousy with cyber holes (Australian Broadcasting Corp) — ABC’s report said Australia’s trade commission and Defence Science Technology Group have been attacked frequently, but the worst target was NewSat. The breaches required a complete replacement of NewSat’s network at a time when it was struggling with profitability during the ramp-up to launch the Lockheed Martin Jabiru-1 Ka-band satellite. China was named as a likely suspect due to the level of skill and organization required for the numerous breaches as well as economic interest. ABC’s Four Corners investigative reporting program also covered this topic — worth watching for the entertaining quotes by former CIA Director Michael Hayden and computer security consultant/hacker Kevin Mitnick in the same video.
  • Opera software users should reset passwords due to possible breach (Threatpost) — Thought users’ passwords were encrypted or hashed, the browser manufacturer still asks users to reset passwords used to sync their Opera accounts as the sync system “showed signs of an attack.” Norwegian company Opera Software has been sold recently to a Chinese group though the sale may not yet have closed.

That’s a wrap for now, catch you tomorrow! Don’t forget your bug spray!