Category Archives: covert action

Assassinations and Top Secret Chemicals: the case of Novichok Nerve Agent

In 2018, one of the Novichok nerve agents was used in an attempt to assassinate a former Russian spy on U.K. soil—spurring the United States and allies to lift the veil of secrecy and mount a drive to outlaw the obscure class of nerve agents, concocted in a Soviet weapons lab during the height of the Cold War. Now, their effort to amend the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is about to pay off.

On 9 October, the Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the body that administers the treaty, reviewed a revised proposal from Russia that would bring Novichoks under the treaty’s verification regime, along with a class of potential weapons known as carbamates. If the Russian proposal and a similar one from the United States, Canada, and the Netherlands are approved at a treaty review meeting in December 2019.

The newfound glasnost on Novichoks, also known as fourth-generation nerve agents, should spur research on their mechanism of action and on countermeasures and treatments.   Chemical weapons experts had been whispering about Novichoks for decades.   Treaty nations have long resisted adding Novichoks to the CWC’s so-called Schedule 1 list of chemical weapons, which compels signatories to declare and destroy any stockpiles. “People were worried about a Pandora’s box,” fearing such a listing would force them to regulate ingredients of the weapons, Koblentz says. That could hamper the chemical industry and might clue in enemies on how to cook them up. (Who has the agents now is anyone’s guess.) Indeed, the U.S. government for years classified the Novichok agents as top secret. “There was a desire among Western countries to keep the information as limited as possible to avoid proliferation issues,” Koblentz says.

The 2018 assassination attempt against former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, U.K., thrust the Novichok agents into the spotlight. The botched attack gravely sickened Skripal, his daughter Yulia, two police officers who investigated the crime scene, and a couple—Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess—who a few months later happened on a perfume bottle containing the agent. After long hospitalizations, the Skripals, the officers, and Rowley recovered; Sturgess died. The United Kingdom charged two Russian men, reportedly military intelligence officers, as the alleged assailants, and obtained a European warrant for their arrest; they remain at large in Russia.

Excerpts from Richard Stone, Obscure Cold War nerve agents set to be banned, Science, Oct. 25, 2019

How to Engineer Bacteria to Search for Underground Chemical Weapons: DARPA

U.S. military researchers asked in 2019 two companies to develop new kinds of biological sensors that can detect underground disturbances or the presence of buried chemicals or weapons.

Officials of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va., are looking to Raytheon BBN Technologies, and Signature Science, for the BioReporters for Subterranean Surveillance program.  This project seeks to use indigenous and engineered organisms to sense changes of interest to military commanders in natural and built environments. Raytheon BBN and Signature Science won separate $1.6 million contracts for the Subterranean Surveillance progam.

The two companies will perform laboratory research and proof-of-concept demonstrations of biological sensing systems in well- controlled field tests that take advantage of recent advances in microbial science and synthetic biology to develop biological sensors, signal transducers, and reporters that can reveal subterranean phenomena at a distance.  Bio Reporters should be able to sense a phenomenon at least one meter below the surface, propagate a signal to the surface within seven days, and be continuously detectable on the surface at a distance of 10 meters over the subsequent seven days.

DARPA researchers want Raytheon BBN and Signature Science experts to take advantage of the extensive biological networks that exist underground to monitor large areas to increase the military’s ability to detect subterranean events without the need for precise coordinates.

Excerpts from John Keller, Researchers eye new biological sensors to to detect underground objects like buried chemicals and weapons, https://www.militaryaerospace.com,  Nov. 6, 2019

In more detail  Signature Science and its partner, the Texas A&M University Center for Phage Technology, aim to leverage modern and synthetic phage biology and the straightforward molecular genetics of the harmless soil bacterium Bacillus subtilis to generate a new platform to recognize and report on specific chemical threats underground. The Spore-Phage Amplified Detection (SPADe) method, potentially extensible to explosives, radiation or physical disturbance sensing, seeks to substantially advance currently used techniques which rely heavily on manual soil testing. 

Cyber-Attacking Nuclear Plants: the 3 000 cyber bugs

In the first half of 2019 , no country endured more cyber-attacks on its Internet of Things—the web of internet-connected devices and infrastructure—than India did. So asserts Subex, an Indian telecommunications firm, which produces regular reports on cyber-security. Between April and June of 2019, it said, recorded cyber-attacks jumped by 22%, with 2,550 unique samples of malware discovered. Some of that malicious code is turning up in hair-raising places.

On October 28, 2019 reports indicated that malware had been found on the computer systems of Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in Tamil Nadu, the newest and largest such power station in India. Pukhraj Singh, a cybersecurity researcher who formerly worked for the National Technical Research Organisation (NTRO), India’s signals-intelligence agency, says he was informed of the malware by an undisclosed third party in September, and notified the government.The attackers, he said, had acquired high-level access and struck “extremely mission-critical targets”…. On October 30, 2019 the body that operates nuclear power plants acknowledged, sheepishly, that a computer had indeed been infected, but it was only an “administrative” one.

Sensitive sites such as power plants typically isolate the industrial-control systems (those that control the workings of a plant) from those connected to the wider internet. They do so using air-gaps (which involve disconnecting the system from the wider world), firewalls (which monitor data-flows for suspicious traffic) or data diodes (which allow information to flow out but not in).

But breaching a computer on the outside of these digital moats is nevertheless troubling. It could have given the attackers access to sensitive emails, personnel records and other details which would, in turn, make it easier to gain access to the more isolated operational part of the plant. America and Israel are thought to have sneaked the devastating Stuxnet virus into Iran’s air-gapped uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz around 2007 by planting a USB stick on a worker, who carried it inside and plugged it in.

The culprit behind the Kudankulam attack is unknown, but left some clues. The malware in question is from a family known as DTrack, which gives attackers an intimate look at what victims are doing—down to their keystrokes. It is typically used to monitor a target, making it easier to deliver further malware. DTrack was originally developed by a group of hackers known as the Lazarus Group, who are widely assumed to be controlled or directed by North Korea.

Excerpts from On the DTrack: A cyber-attack on an Indian nuclear plant raises worrying questions, Economist, Nov. 1, 2019

How to Fool your Enemy: Artificial Intelligence in Conflict

The contest between China and America, the world’s two superpowers, has many dimensions… One of the most alarming and least understood is the race towards artificial-intelligence-enabled warfare. Both countries are investing large sums in militarised artificial intelligence  (AI), from autonomous robots to software that gives generals rapid tactical advice in the heat of battle….As Jack Shanahan, a general who is the Pentagon’s point man for AI, put it last month, “What I don’t want to see is a future where our potential adversaries have a fully ai-enabled force and we do not.”

AI-enabled weapons may offer superhuman speed and precision.  In order to gain a military advantage, the temptation for armies will be to allow them not only to recommend decisions but also to give orders. That could have worrying consequences. Able to think faster than humans, an AI-enabled command system might cue up missile strikes on aircraft carriers and airbases at a pace that leaves no time for diplomacy and in ways that are not fully understood by its operators. On top of that, ai systems can be hacked, and tricked with manipulated data.

AI in war might aid surprise attacks or confound them, and the death toll could range from none to millions.  Unlike missile silos, software cannot be spied on from satellites. And whereas warheads can be inspected by enemies without reducing their potency, showing the outside world an algorithm could compromise its effectiveness. The incentive may be for both sides to mislead the other. “Adversaries’ ignorance of AI-developed configurations will become a strategic advantage,” suggests Henry Kissinger, who led America’s cold-war arms-control efforts with the Soviet Union…Amid a confrontation between the world’s two big powers, the temptation will be to cut corners for temporary advantage. 

Excerpts from Mind control: Artificial intelligence and war, Economist,  Sept. 7, 2019

Example of the Use of AI in Warfare: The Real-time Adversarial Intelligence and Decision-making (RAID) program under the auspices of The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Information Exploitation Office (IXO)  focuses on the challenge of anticipating enemy actions in a military operation. In the US Air Force community, the term, predictive battlespace awareness, refers to capabilities that would help the commander and staff to characterize and predict likely enemy courses of action…Today’s practices of military intelligence and decision-making do include a number of processes specifically aimed at predicting enemy actions. Currently, these processes are largely manual as well as mental, and do not involve any significant use of technical means. Even when computerized wargaming is used (albeit rarely in field conditions), it relies either on human guidance of the simulated enemy units or on simple reactive behaviors of such simulated units; in neither case is there a computerized prediction of intelligent and forward-looking enemy actions….

[The deception reasoning of the adversary is very important in this context.]  Deception reasoning refers to an important aspect of predicting enemy actions: the fact that military operations are historically, crucially dependent on the ability to use various forms of concealment and deception for friendly purposes while detecting and counteracting the enemy’s concealment and deception. Therefore, adversarial reasoning must include deception reasoning.

The RAID Program will develop a real-time adversarial predictive analysis tool that operates as an automated enemy predictor providing a continuously updated picture of probable enemy actions in tactical ground operations. The RAID Program will strive to: prove that adversarial reasoning can be automated; prove that automated adversarial reasoning can include deception….

Excerpts from Real-time Adversarial Intelligence and Decision-making (RAID), US Federal Grants

Dodging the Camera: How to Beat the Surveillance State in its Own Game

Powered by advances in artificial intelligence (AI), face-recognition systems are spreading like knotweed. Facebook, a social network, uses the technology to label people in uploaded photographs. Modern smartphones can be unlocked with it… America’s Department of Homeland Security reckons face recognition will scrutinise 97% of outbound airline passengers by 2023. Networks of face-recognition cameras are part of the police state China has built in Xinjiang, in the country’s far west. And a number of British police forces have tested the technology as a tool of mass surveillance in trials designed to spot criminals on the street.  A backlash, though, is brewing.

Refuseniks can also take matters into their own hands by trying to hide their faces from the cameras or, as has happened recently during protests in Hong Kong, by pointing hand-held lasers at cctv cameras. to dazzle them. Meanwhile, a small but growing group of privacy campaigners and academics are looking at ways to subvert the underlying technology directly…

Laser Pointers Used to Blind CCTV cameras during the Hong Kong Protests 2019

In 2010… an American researcher and artist named Adam Harvey created “cv [computer vision] Dazzle”, a style of make-up designed to fool face recognisers. It uses bright colours, high contrast, graded shading and asymmetric stylings to confound an algorithm’s assumptions about what a face looks like. To a human being, the result is still clearly a face. But a computer—or, at least, the specific algorithm Mr Harvey was aiming at—is baffled….

Modern Make-Up to Hide from CCTV cameras

HyperFace is a newer project of Mr Harvey’s. Where cv Dazzle aims to alter faces, HyperFace aims to hide them among dozens of fakes. It uses blocky, semi-abstract and comparatively innocent-looking patterns that are designed to appeal as strongly as possible to face classifiers. The idea is to disguise the real thing among a sea of false positives. Clothes with the pattern, which features lines and sets of dark spots vaguely reminiscent of mouths and pairs of eyes are available…

Hyperface Clothing for Camouflage

 Even in China, says Mr Harvey, only a fraction of cctv cameras collect pictures sharp enough for face recognition to work. Low-tech approaches can help, too. “Even small things like wearing turtlenecks, wearing sunglasses, looking at your phone [and therefore not at the cameras]—together these have some protective effect”. 

Excerpts from As face-recognition technology spreads, so do ideas for subverting it: Fooling Big Brother,  Economist, Aug. 17, 2019

Who Owns Your Voice? Grabbing Biometric Data

Increasingly sophisticated technology that detects nuances in sound inaudible to humans is capturing clues about people’s likely locations, medical conditions and even physical features.Law-enforcement agencies are turning to those clues from the human voice to help sketch the faces of suspects. Banks are using them to catch scammers trying to imitate their customers on the phone, and doctors are using such data to detect the onset of dementia or depression.  That has… raised fresh privacy concerns, as consumers’ biometric data is harnessed in novel ways.

“People have known that voice carries information for centuries,” said Rita Singh, a voice and machine-learning researcher at Carnegie Mellon University who receives funding from the Department of Homeland Security…Ms. Singh measures dozens of voice-quality features—such as raspiness or tremor—that relate to the inside of a person’s vocal tract and how an individual voice is produced. She detects so-called microvolumes of air that help create the sound waves that make up the human voice. The way they resonate in the vocal tract, along with other voice characteristics, provides clues on a person’s skull structure, height, weight and physical surroundings, she said.

Nuance’s voice-biometric and recognition software is designed to detect the gender, age and linguistic background of callers and whether a voice is synthetic or recorded. It helped one bank determine that a single person was responsible for tens of millions of dollars of theft, or 18% of the fraud the firm encountered in a year, said Brett Beranek, general manager of Nuance’s security and biometrics business.

Audio data from customer-service calls is also combined with information on how consumers typically interact with mobile apps and devices, said Howard Edelstein, chairman of behavioral biometric company Biocatch. The company can detect the cadence and pressure of swipes and taps on a smartphone.  How a person holds a smartphone gives clues about their age, for example, allowing a financial firm to compare the age of the normal account user to the age of the caller…

If such data collected by a company were improperly sold or hacked, some fear recovering from identity theft could be even harder because physical features are innate and irreplaceable.

Sarah Krouse, What Your Voice Reveals About You, WSJ, Aug. 13, 2019

Who is Afraid of Shamoon? How to Wipe a Country Off the Face of the Earth

Suspected Iranian hackers infiltrated critical infrastructure and government computers in the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain in July-August  2019, raising fears among leaders in the region that Tehran is stepping up its cyberattacks amid growing tensions…Hackers broke into the systems of Bahrain’s National Security Agency—the country’s main criminal investigative authority—as well as the Ministry of Interior and the first deputy prime minister’s office, according to one of the people familiar with the matter.

On July 25, 2019 Bahrain authorities identified intrusions into its Electricity and Water Authority. The hackers shut down several systems in what the authorities believed was a test run of Iran’s capability to disrupt the country, the person said. “They had command and control of some of the systems,” the person said.  The breaches appeared broadly similar to two hacks in 2012 that knocked Qatar’s natural-gas firm RasGas offline and wiped data from computer hard drives belonging to Saudi Arabia’s Aramco national oil company, a devastating attack that relied on a powerful virus known as Shamoon.  Bahrain is the smallest country in the Persian Gulf, but it is strategically important because it’s the permanent home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and Navy Central Command. It is closely allied with its much larger neighbor, Saudi Arabia, a regional rival of Iran.

The Bahrain authorities haven’t definitively attributed the attack to Iran, but they have been provided intelligence by the U.S. and others suggesting Iran is behind it, the people familiar with the matter said….“In the first half of 2019, the Information & eGovernment Authority successfully intercepted over 6 million attacks and over 830,000 malicious emails. The attempted attacks did not result in downtime or disruption of government services,” 

Excerpt from High-Level Cyber Intrusions Hit Bahrain Amid Tensions With Iran, WSJ, Aug. 7, 2019