Technology and Spycraft

July 28, 2010

I’ve written here on many occasions about the impact that our rapidly developing technology has had and is having on our privacy and the security of our personal information.   Recently, the Economist had an interesting short article exploring another aspect of these changes: the effect of technological change on the business of spying.

If you are in the spying business, your attitude toward technology, as the article points out, probably depends a lot on what sort of spy you are.

DEPENDING on what kind of spy you are, you either love technology or hate it. For intelligence-gatherers whose work is based on bugging and eavesdropping, life has never been better.

Obviously, for folks like the spooks at the National Security Agency, or at GCHQ in the UK, technology is generally a great boon.  For example, in the not too distant past, eavesdropping on someone’s telephone calls required that a physical electrical connection be made to his phone line, perhaps outside his house or in the telephone company central office.  With cellular and cordless phones, the signals can just be sniffed out of the air.  The cellular provider may claim, honestly, that the signals are encrypted, but the security record of these systems is not good.  (For example, see my post earlier this year on the cracking of DECT encryption.)

For the more old-fashioned kind of spy, though — the kind pursuing human intelligence with his or her feet on the ground — technology has made life a lot harder.  Once, a common method of developing a false identity was to start from the authentic birth certificate of a child that had died in infancy, and add a few plausible supporting documents.

Creating false identities used to be easy: an intelligence officer setting off on a job would take a scuffed passport, a wallet with a couple of credit cards, a driving licence and some family snaps.

In a world based on paper records, untangling even a moderately complex false trail took time and a lot of legwork.  Today, with so much information about us available online, the task of creating a convincing back story, or “legend”, has become much harder; and checking on someone’s background has become something that can be done, in large part, sitting at one’s desk.    (This is sort of the flip side of the increased ease of identity theft.)

The article suggests that the future days of the classic “deep cover” spy are numbered.  More likely is the use of “real people”, in an age where people routinely move about the world much more than they used to.  Espionage may go back to being a game for amateurs and free-lancers, rather than a professional career.


A tide turns

Technology used to help spies. Now it hinders them

DEPENDING on what kind of spy you are, you either love technology or hate it. For intelligence-gatherers whose work is based on bugging and eavesdropping, life has never been better.

Apple Updates Safari

July 28, 2010

Apple has released updated versions of its Safari Web browser, in order to address a number of security vulnerabilities.   The primary new version, 5.0.1, is available for Windows XP, Vista, and 7, and for Mac OS X versions 10.5.x and 10.6.x.   Apple also released version 4.1.1, addressing essentially the same issues, for Mac OS X 10.4.11.   Apple’s “Security Content” article has details of the vulnerabilities being patched.

The new version, which I recommend installing as soon as you conveniently can, should be available through Apple’s Software Update mechanism; alternatively, the new versions can be obtained from Apple’s Support Downloads page.

Update Wednesday, 28 July, 23:25 EDT

I did not realize it from reading the original release announcement, but the new Safari 5.0.1 version apparently does have one significant functional enhancement, in addition to its security fixes.  This version includes the new framework for allowing third-party browser extensions, similar to the facility that has existed in Firefox for some time.  There’s a short survey of the new feature at Wired‘s “Webmonkey” site.

Apple has also introduced a new Safari Extensions Gallery.

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