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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 identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+

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Filed Under: gru, internet, open source intelligence, privacy, russia, russian spies


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  1. identicon
    guy, 10 Oct 2018 @ 1:34pm

    Does... does the GRU not know how to put fake addresses into a database?

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