Monday, November 24, 2014

let's play nsa!

motherboard.vice |  Prior to the release of the ANT catalog, the last time the public had ever heard anything about retro-reflection technology being used in a surveillance device was in 1960. And the technology became such a sensation that it earned one of the most iconic nicknames of the Cold War.
On August 4, 1945, as World War II was winding down and new tensions with the Soviets were starting to wind up, Russian schoolchildren paid a visit to the American Ambassador in Moscow and bestowed upon him a token of good will: a Great Seal of the United States. The Ambassador hung it in his residential study.

There it hung until one day in 1952, when a British radio technician in Moscow, listening in on Russian air traffic, discovered something unexpected on one frequency: the sound of the British ambassador, loud and clear, along with other American-accented conversations. Thus began one of many exhaustive tear-downs of the embassy. They were looking to find a listening device—and they did, along with a new frontier of spying. The culprit was the Great Seal.

Inside the Americans and British found a tiny device the likes of which they’d never seen. So alien was the Great Seal Bug that the only appropriate name for it seemed to be “The Thing,” after the character in the Addams Family (which was then still just a New Yorker cartoon). It was a retroreflector.

“The Thing,” turned out to have been invented by the legendary Russian engineer Lev Sergeyevich Termen, or Leon Theremin, who may be most famous as the father of the spooky radio-based instrument named after him, but is also considered a pioneer of RFID technology.

But perhaps surprisingly, despite all the public interest in the revelation, “The Thing” did not seem to herald more “things.” In the history of espionage technology, it was a great story, but ultimately a footnote. As far as the public knew, after its fantastical discovery there were fifty-three years of radio silence, so to speak.

“In hindsight,” Ossmann said, “it’s obvious that these types of attacks are practical and employed. For someone who knows a little bit about electronics and a little bit about security, RF retroreflectors should be completely unsurprising. However, I couldn't find anyone who had published any research on the subject at all. That was astonishing."

(This is where things get a bit complicated again; it's worth it, but if you simply can't deal with the details, take my word for it, and skip down to the next section.)  Fist tap Arnach.


Ed Dunn said...

What is missing from the commentary is how the device was powered - it had to be heated on a certain frequency (like RFID) to start transmitting data. And that instrument was used in the original Star Trek intro if I'm correct.