Category Archives: Espionage

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. 

The Ocean-Based Internet: Data Mining the Ocean

The U.S. Defense Department could one day place thousands of low-cost, floating sensors into the ocean to collect environmental data, such as water temperature, as well as activity data about commercial vessels, aircraft and even fish or maritime mammals moving through the area. But others also are dropping similar sensors in the world’s oceans, and defense researchers suggest many of those systems could be integrated into an even more comprehensive ocean-based Internet of Things.

The growing Internet of Things is mostly a land-based phenomenon, frequently in large cities with loads of sensors. But researchers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) foresee a wide range of military and civil benefits from extending the Internet of Things out to sea.  The agency announced its Ocean of Things program in 2017. John Waterston, a program manager within DARPA’s Strategic Technology Office, says the sensors will float along the surface for at least one year, transmitting short messages via the Iridium satellite constellation back to a central location for analysis. “It’s a 280-byte in and 340-byte out message, so it’s a little bit more than a tweet. I like to say these things tweet about their environment,” he says.

The goal is to increase maritime awareness in a cost-effective way. Using existing systems to continuously monitor vast regions of the ocean would be cost prohibitive…. By coupling powerful analytical tools with commercial sensor technology, the agency intends to create floating sensor networks that significantly expand maritime awareness at a fraction of the cost of current approaches.

Waterston says one of the most interesting missions for the sensor might be to simply determine whether GPS signals are available in an area of interest for military operations. …The program also could help improve ocean modeling, which is important for forecasting weather, finding people who have fallen overboard or locating debris from a crashed aircraft. …The agency has yet to determine how many sensors it might eventually deploy, but they could number in the tens of thousands. To put that into perspective, DARPA officials compare the final density to placing a penny on the national mall, which Wikipedia says covers about 309 acres between the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial….

In addition, Argo, an international program, uses several thousand battery-powered, robotic floating devices to measure temperature, salinity and current for climate and oceanographic research. The floats mostly drift 10 days at a time below the ocean surface. After rising and transmitting their data to satellites, they return to depth to drift for another 10 days. The floats go as deep as 2,000 meters, according to the Argo website. 

Argo Floating Device

It is possible an ocean-based Internet could provide data on demand to a variety of customers inside and outside the Defense Department. If, for example, a government agency needs the water temperature in a given area reported every six hours, or a combatant command needs to know what’s happening in the Mediterranean, or NATO officials want information between Gibraltar and Sicily, or commercial fishermen need data on where the shrimp or tuna are, they could simply request it. “It’s about serving the end users. If you can use that data, we can generate it for you,” he offers. “It’s a little bit like floats-as-a-service or data-as-a-service.”

Argo’s Ocean Sensors

Another option is that other organizations could purchase and deploy the DARPA-developed sensors. “I hope people want to come up with their own sensors or want to buy these. I imagine a marketplace where you get many commercial people buying these. Everyone could buy 500 and then take advantage of the service provided by the thousands that are out there. I could imagine this as that foundational community,” Waterston suggests.

DARPA currently is working with three teams led by the Palo Alto Research Center, better known as PARC***, Areté Associates and Numurus LLC to develop the floats. Leidos, Draper Laboratory, SoarTech and Geometric Data Analytics are providing software for data visualization, performance prediction, float command and control and detection. 

Excerpts from George Seffers, DARPA’s Ocean of Things Ripples Across Research Areas, AFCEA.org, Nov. 1, 2019

***See also DARPA’s Vanishing Programmable Resources (VAPR) program. According to one scientist that works in the PARC’s disappearing electronics platform (called DUST) “Imagine being able to cover a large area, like the ocean floor, with billions of tiny sensors to ‘hear’ what is happening within the earth’s crust, and have them quickly disintegrate into, essentially, sand, leaving no trace and not harming the planet or sea life,  

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

Nuclear Submarines on Fire (2)

Vladimir Putin has confirmed  on July 4, 2019  that the top-secret submarine that suffered a deadly fire was nuclear-powered, but Russia’s defence minister said the nuclear unit had been sealed off and was in “working order.”  The incident, which left 14 Russian sailors dead,  The Russian government has been slow to reveal information about the incident because the submersible, thought to be a deep-diving vessel used for research and reconnaissance, is among Russia’s most secret military projects.  The fire aboard the “Losharik” AS-31 submersible began in the battery compartment and spread through the vessel…The vessel is thought to be made of a series of orb-like compartments, which increase the submersible’s resilience and allow it to dive to the ocean floor. Once there, it can perform topographical research and participate in rescue missions. It may even be able to tap and sever communications cables on the seabed.

Officials claim the submariners sealed themselves in one of the compartments to battle the blaze and toxic fumes…A Norwegian official told Reuters there had been no “formal communication” from Russia about an incident aboard a nuclear-powered vessel, but “we would have been happy to have been informed of such incidents”….Accidents aboard submarines invariably evoke comparisons to Putin’s clumsy handling of the sinking of the Kursk nuclear submarine in 2000, which left 118 dead and families desperate for information about their loved ones.

Excerpt Putin confirms fire-hit Russian submarine was nuclear-powerered, Guardian, July 4, 2019

Black Operations are Getting Blacker: US Military

Heterogeneous Collaborative Unmanned Systems (HCUS), as these drones will be known, would be dropped off by either a manned submarine or one of the navy’s big new Orca robot submersibles.

Logo for Orca Submarine by Lockheed Martin

They could be delivered individually, but will more often be part of a collective system called an encapsulated payload. Such a system will then release small underwater vehicles able to identify ships and submarines by their acoustic signatures, and also aerial drones similar to the BlackWing reconnaissance drones already flown from certain naval vessels.

BlackWing

Once the initial intelligence these drones collect has been analysed, a payload’s operators will be in a position to relay further orders. They could, for example, send aerial drones ashore to drop off solar-powered ground sensors at specified points. These sensors, typically disguised as rocks, will send back the data they collect via drones of the sort that dropped them off. Some will have cameras or microphones, others seismometers which detect the vibrations of ground vehicles, while others still intercept radio traffic or Wi-Fi.

Lockheed Martin Ground Sensor Disguised as Rock

HCUS will also be capable of what are described as “limited offensive effects”. Small drones like BlackWing can be fitted with warheads powerful enough to destroy an SUV or a pickup truck. Such drones are already used to assassinate the leaders of enemy forces. They might be deployed against fuel and ammunition stores, too.

Unmanned systems such as HCUS thus promise greatly to expand the scope of submarine-based spying and special operations. Drones are cheap, expendable and can be deployed with no risk of loss of personnel. They are also “deniable”. Even when a spy drone is captured it is hard to prove where it came from. Teams of robot spies and saboteurs launched from submarines, both manned and unmanned, could thus become an important feature of the black-ops of 21st-century warfare.

Excerpts from Submarine-launched drone platoons will soon be emerging from the sea: Clandestine Warfare, Economist, June 22, 2019