As Everyone Knows, In The Age Of The Internet, Privacy Is Dead — Which Is Awkward If You Are A Russian Spy

from the not-just-here-for-the-medieval-church-architecture dept

Judging by the headlines, there are Russian spies everywhere these days. Of course, Russia routinely denies everything, but its attempts at deflection are growing a little feeble. For example, the UK government identified two men it claimed were responsible for the novichok attack on the Skripals in Salisbury. It said they were agents from GRU, Russia’s largest military intelligence agency, and one of several groups authorized to spy for the Russian government. The two men appeared later on Russian television, where they denied they were spies, and insisted they were just lovers of English medieval architecture who were in Salisbury to admire the cathedral’s 123-meter spire.

More recently, Dutch military intelligence claimed that four officers from GRU had flown into the Netherlands in order to carry out an online attack on the headquarters of the international chemical weapons watchdog that was investigating the Salisbury poisoning. In this case, the Russian government didn’t even bother insisting that the men were actually in town to look at Amsterdam’s canals. That was probably wise, since a variety of information available online seems to confirm their links to GRU, as the Guardian explained:

One of the suspected agents, tipped as a “human intelligence source” by Dutch investigators, had registered five vehicles at a north-western Moscow address better known as the Aquarium, the GRU finishing school for military attaches and elite spies. According to online listings, which are not official but are publicly available to anyone on Google, he drove a Honda Civic, then moved on to an Alfa Romeo. In case the address did not tip investigators off, he also listed the base number of the Military-Diplomatic Academy.


One of the men, Aleksei Morenets, an alleged hacker, appeared to have set up a dating profile.

Another played for an amateur Moscow football team “known as the security services team” a current player told the Moscow Times. “Almost everyone works for an intelligence agency.” The team rosters are publicly available.

The “open source intelligence” group Bellingcat came up with even more astonishing details when they started digging online. Bellingcat found one of the four Russians named by the Dutch authorities in Russia’s vehicle ownership database. The car was registered to Komsomolsky Prospekt 20, which happens to be the address of military unit 26165, described by Dutch and US law enforcement agencies as GRU’s digital warfare department. By searching the database for other vehicles registered at the same address, Bellingcat came up with a list of 305 individuals linked with the GRU division. The database entries included their full names and passport numbers, as well as mobile phone numbers in most cases. Bellingcat points out that if these are indeed GRU operatives, this discovery would be one of the largest breaches of personal data of an intelligence agency in recent years.

An interesting thread on Twitter by Alexander Gabuev, Senior Fellow and Chair of Russia in Asia-Pacific Program at Carnegie Moscow Center, explains why Bellingcat was able to find such sensitive information online. He says:

the Russian Traffic Authority is notoriously corrupt even by Russian standards, it’s inexhaustible source of dark Russian humor. No surprise its database is very easy to buy in the black market since 1990s

In the 1990s, black market information was mostly of interest to specialists, hard to find, and had limited circulation. Today, even sensitive data almost inevitably ends up posted online somewhere, because everything digital has a tendency to end up online once it’s available. It’s then only a matter of time before groups like Bellingcat find it as they follow up their leads. Combine that with a wealth of information contained in social media posts or on Web sites, and spies have a problem keeping in the shadows. Techdirt has written many stories about how the privacy of ordinary people has been compromised by leaks of personal information that is later made available online. There’s no doubt that can be embarrassing and inconvenient for those affected. But if it’s any consolation, it’s even worse when you are a Russian spy.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or, and +glynmoody on Google+

Filed Under: , , , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “As Everyone Knows, In The Age Of The Internet, Privacy Is Dead — Which Is Awkward If You Are A Russian Spy”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Re: This

TSA Agent: “I’m sorry, Mister… Bond, was it? You’re on the No-Fly list. You cannot enter the country.”

Bond: “I’m just an ordinary businessman here to arrange parts for our assembly plants.”

TSA Agent: “And this list of countries you visited before coming here… I’m afraid we’re going to have to run you through the ‘enhanced’ screening before calling the police. Please step into the room on the right and wait for an officer.”


Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: This

Whatever happened with the facial bio-metric and iris scanning that started ramping up at a number of country’s entry points?

IIRC the various intelligence agencies were freaking out because once an agent was scanned, they’d never be able to secretly infiltrate under a new alias (barring some super-agent thingamajig).

Even today MI6 would be hard pressed (or nearly impossible) to completely erase one’s digital past.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 This

barring some super-agent thingamajig

Or eyeball-on-a-stick, ร  la Demolition Man. More realistically, some kind of contact lens. How about an iris image that triggers a buffer overflow and takes control of the machine?

Having no human involved likely makes things easier for the spies. They’ll buy a machine on the open market and know exactly how it will react to their tricks, before getting near a border. Nevermind that the iris data behind this system is provided by the very government they work for…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 This

Nevermind that the iris data behind this system is provided by the very government they work for…

Bingo. We have a winner. The government’s agents will always "slip" through screening. At least the ones of sufficiently powerful nations. Everyone else on the other hand, will be tracked, cataloged, and judged eternally.

Privacy is only for governments, because the people willingly gave it up.

Mark Gisleson (profile) says:

Salisbury Russians

Who knows what they were up to, but the notion that the Russians are behind the alleged Skripal poisoning is just flat out wrong.

Hard to know what May’s Tory govt is doing, but if you read independent Russian experts you won’t find anyone buying into a Russian plot, not involving the Skripals neither of whom have been allowed to speak with journalists.

Craig Murray has done a great job of blogging about this.

Glenn says:

The illusion (delusion?) of privacy, however, will persist. There will always be people who view their Internet usage as private just because they’re sitting at their personal computer or device in their private home. No, others may not be able to tell if you’re in your underwear (presuming your camera lens is covered), but someone you’re not expecting to will be able to “see” everything you do with your connection–some things that not even you know about.

flyinginn says:

A bit of context would help. This is a serious case of the pot calling the kettle black, almost as if we’d forgotten Ed Snowden’s whistleblowing disclosures on the extent of Five Eyes spying – which got him unintended Russian residency as a reward. Whoever the Salisbury super-spy duo actually were, they were visibly stooges, not assassins. They make Wily Coyote look professional. Sergei Skripal might be able to ID them, but amazingly not only have all the witnesses vanished, but the press has displayed an astounding disinterest in finding them. Or examining the “official” UK narrative. As for the Dutch OPCW “hack” – is it really that surprising when the detailed chemical analysis of the alleged nerve agent remains secret? The OPCW protocols say that the findings should be available to all members, including Russia which, after all, had only been accused of using a prohibited weapon based on claims that it was a deadly poison manufactured in Russia – a manifest porky, since it wasn’t Novichok and could have been manufactured anywhere. Complaining about Russians poking around the OPCW WiFi seem pretty feeble compared to the antics GCHQ and others get up to, including hacking friendly governments.

So great, now we know where to find the GRU’s car park. With that kind of sleuthing, finding Sergei Skripal should be a snap.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop ยป

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...