Saturday, September 26, 2020

Podcast Nuggets Episode 7

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We're back with another selection of excellent podcasts to spoil the ears.  The first one is a fascinating two-part insight in the recruiting, training and deep cover life of former KGB illegal Jack Barsky in the United States. Next is a national bank robbery that counts, literally, into to billions. Finally, the story of project Cybersyn, the creation of Cybernet to modernise Salvador Allende's Chile.

COLD WAR CONVERSATIONS - I was a deep cover KGB spy Part 1 is an interview with Jack Barsky about his remarkable career as a spy. In this first part he talks about his early childhood and life in East Germany. As a bright student at the university of Jena he was scouted by the Stasi and recruited by the KGB. After two years of training in Berlin he was sent to Moscow to be trained as a deep cover illegal and develop his new identity. The legendary Soviets spies Morris and Lona cohen, also known as Peter and Helen Kroger, helped him to become American.

COLD WAR CONVERSATIONS - I was a deep cover KGB spy - Part 2 continues with Jack Barsky's arrival in the United States. He had to build a new fictitious life and a succesfull career. He regularly received encrypted radio messages from the KGB. His assignment was to develop contacts with people of interest. Ten years later, married and having a daughter, he decided to break with the KGB. It took the FBI almost ten years to catch him. To learn more about Jack Barsky's life and spy career I can highly recommend his book Deep Undercover with a very detailed account of his life and work as a KGB spy in the United States.

DARKNET DIARIES - Bangladesh Bank Heist is a guide to rob a billion dollars without anyone ever noticing. At least, that's the plan. Jack Rhysider interviewed investigative journalist Geoff White about the National Bank of Bangladesh who had a foreign currency reserve in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. To work with that reserve, the bank used SWIFT, an international bank transfer network to send payment orders between banks all over the world. This is where the troubles start.

DAMN INTERESTING - Nineteen Seventy Three brings the story of Chilean president Salvador Allende and British theorist Stafford Beer. The world-renowned cybernetician proposed to develop a network with thousands of terminals that feed the complete Chilean economy and industry into a central mainframe computer with software that would optimize the country's resources and economy. However, this promising boost for Allende's socialist economy was not met with enthusiasm by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

Monday, August 03, 2020

Nuking the Moon

This is one of the books where I had no clue where or how to start my review. Vince Houghton, historian and curator of the Spy Museum, encountered many stories, some absurd, some ridiculous and some plain nonsense... or weren’t they?

Many impressive late night stories were told by people from the intelligence community, but Vince knows quite a few of them and, as any serious historian, interviewed experts, researched archives and scrolled through declassified documents to find the truth behind utmost secret World War II and Cold War inventions and operations. Brilliant men, inventors and exceptional innovators created some of the well-known and most advanced technology ever build, but it's not about these inventions...

Because at some point, they were asked to come up with solutions that required exceptional out-of-the-box thinking for problems the government desperately wanted solved. And when a nation is desperate, any solution, I really mean any solution, is justified and approved. A cat, turned into a listening device (yes, I wrote turned into, not wearing), recruiting one-armed trappers with a pilot license as stay-behind forces, swarms with thousands of pebbles with electronic eyes in space, waiting to bump into Soviet ICBM’s, using nuclear power as agricultural machinery or fly around nuclear reactors and many many more stories.

The book contains many implausible ideas, some are just terrible, awful or plain dangerous. And the worst of all... they are all true! And they worked, sort of, or not quite. Fortunately, at some point, some guy said nah, too crazy, too dangerous or too mad, and the plan was scrapped. Vince not only found the history, organisations and men behind these unbelievable plans, but also brings these stories in such an entertaining, colourful and sometimes hilarious way.

However, although you might dismiss these sometimes bizarre ideas at first glance, you cannot turn a blind eye for how desperate these solutions were needed, the era and circumstances that - almost - justified those ideas, and how brilliant and innovative some of those solutions were. This book will make you chuckle at almost every page but will also astonish you with fascinating ideas, far ahead of their time, that would actually work, but for some reason never left the drawing board. Brilliant ideas, brilliantly told by Vince.

To get a taste of the book, listen the interviews with Vince Houghton at the Spy Museum's SpyCast and at Cold War Conversations.

Nuking the Moon by Vince Houghton, ISBN 0525505172

More book reviews on my website.

Thursday, July 09, 2020

Murphy's Law at the National Security Agency

Five years ago the National Security Agency (NSA) once again released David Boak's History of U.S. Communications Security, this time almost completely unredacted. A most interesting document with lectures about various crypto topics, but at the very end there's a chapter titled "Murphy’s Law", and it's a fun read.

Communications security compasses extensive technical requirements and procedures that must be followed. It’s a huge challenge for NSA to draw up regulations that cover all possible safety risks. They do their best, but no matter how hard you try, there’s always Murphy's law.

Some security violations, no jokes but actual incidents, ended up in the COMSEC lectures. They even kept records of security violations, publicized them and ran contests to see what organization could go longest without violation. I won't reveal how they end, you'll have to read it yourself, and there are more stories to discover...

They once suspected the unauthorized use of crypto materials, and a TOP SECRET key list was examined for fingerprints in their chemical lab. They placed the key list on a bench underneath a powerful ventilation system and, you guessed, the key list got sucked up and disappeared. They quickly dispatched some people to the roof to inspect the exit of the duct, but no secret key list. Flown away or stuck somewhere in the hundreds of feet of ducting?

NSA, we have a problem! A small step for man, one giant violation for COMSEC.

NSA had a warehouse in Fort Holabird where they stored a lot of crypto material. The warehouse was fenced and protected by armed guards. One evening, a man was detected inside the fence. The guard shouted “Halt!” but the man climbed over the fence and escaped. The guard could not shoot him, and the reason? You won’t believe.

There’s also the story of one-time tapes, produced by NSA. These punched tapes inevitably produced huge amounts of waste product, tiny round pieces of paper. These chads were collected in burn bags. Some genius had the brilliant idea to give that confetti to high school kids for use at football games. That resulted in a school girls’ father emergency destroying and flushing TOP SECRET keys.

A technical team once had to do a sweep of a Naval Security Station to trace suspected wiring. The inspector opened a floor access plate to examine telephone wiring. He saw a wire that was moving, so he quickly grabbed the wire and pulled it out a few feet, but then the wire began to fight back. What the hell was going on?

Want to know how the incidents ended? These and other Murphy stories at History of U.S. COMSEC Volume I and II, from page 55 (pdf p313), hosted on Alternative link for the document here. Don't forget there's also a lot of interesting crypto related information in that document.

If you're in for more fun with crypto equipment, do visit Jerry Proc's Crypto Humour page. with real stories from the fringes of communications security. Jerry hosts the excellent Crypto Machines website with extensive information about countless crypto devices.