Tuesday, January 16, 2018

OTP Radiograms 101

Last year, I wrote about the fascinating life of the Jack Barsky, a former KGB agent who lived and operated in the United States from 1978 to 1988. After his cover was blown, he decided to stay in the United States and broke his ties with the KGB. It still took the FBI nine years to put all pieces together and catch him in 1997.

One of the tricks of the trade that Barsky used was the reception of radiograms that contained operational instructions. These messages were encrypted with one-time pad and broadcast by the KGB in Morse through a so-called numbers station. This is a most secure method because the radiograms are unbreakable and you cannot trace the receiver as anyone at any locations can receive the broadcast. That's why numbers stations are still in use today. TAG Cyber Media just published a video interview with Jack Barsky where he explains the reception and decryption of these numbers messages.

Also check out Jack Barsky's KGB Radiograms and Family Tales to find that the life of an illegal can take quite a toll on his social life. You can read my review of Jack Barskt's book Deep Undercover that details his extraordinary life and career. More in depth technical and historical information about espionage and communications are found on my web pages about numbers stations and one-time pad. Jack Barsky also talked about other aspects of espionage during the TAG Cyber interview.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Podcast Nuggets part 4

We're back with another series of curious events from both sides of the Iron curtain. This time, we catch a spy that should have been catching spies and we take a detour around the moon with the Soviet Lunik 3 mission. There's also the spicy mix of sex and espionage and you can listen how the Russians, barely, managed to keep the Mir space station in orbit. Clean your ears and listen very carefully!

SPYCAST - The Robert Hansen Spy Case is one of the most damaging cases ever for U.S. intelligence operations. In 1979, FBI counter-intelligence agent Robert Hansen approached a Soviet GRU intelligence officer and offered his services. For two decades, Hansen provided the Soviets with crucial information about American intelligence operations and betrayed Russians that work for the CIA. Senior FBI Supervisory Special Agent David Major talks about Hansen and his motives.

DAMN INTERESTING - Faxes From The Far Side is the stunning story of U.S. spy balloons, the precursors of the spy satellite, and how the Soviets were able to capture some of these spy balloons. They removed the temperature-resistant and radiation-hardened photographic film to re-use it for their own Lunik 3 mission to capture the dark side of the moon. Recycling on a Cold War space level.

SPYCAST - Sexpionage tells the story of sexual entrapment and emotional blackmail by intelligence organisations. The Soviets and especially the East-German intelligence service HvA were masters in the art of sexpionage. Keith Melton explains who did it, how they did it, and some of the great successes of the Russian honey traps and the Stasi Romeo agents.

CURIOUS MINDS - The Awful and Wonderful History of Mir brings the chilling story of several near fatal accidents that occurred on the Russian space station Mir. Collisions, fires, power cuts, breaches. You name it, they had it. Mir was the first modular in space assembled space station, in orbit from 1986 to 1999. It stayed up eight years longer than the American Skylab but that also had its consequences.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Deep Undercover by Jack Barsky

Imagine driving on the interstate on a Friday evening with a great weekend ahead. You just passed the tollgate and a state trooper waves you over. The moment you get out of the car, an FBI agent approaches and tells you he would like to talk to you. You and I would wonder what on earth the FBI wants from you. Jack Barsky didn’t wonder. He knew his life would never be the same anymore.

If you dream of joining the secret service and operate as an illegal agent in foreign countries, you better think twice. It is indeed fascinating work but there’s little glory or 007 excitement. Only lots of stress and worries. Ask Jack Barsky, formerly known as Albrecht Dittrich.

In 1970, Albrecht Dittrich was a talented student at the university of Jena with a promising career in chemistry until a knock on his dorm room changed the course of his life. Scouted by the Stasi, Albrecht was asked by the KGB to join the almighty Soviet secret service and defend the communist ideals as a secret agent. And honestly, you and I would have been honoured to do just the same in similar circumstances. This book explains the how and why.

Albrecht grew up during the harsh post-war years in East-Germany. As a brilliant student he was destined to join the league of men who would define the future of his country and socialism. His childhood shaped his character and ideals, and when offered to serve the socialist cause in the secret service he eagerly took the challenge.

They called it serving but in reality it meant sacrifice. He left family, friends and love to be trained in Moscow as illegal agent. He told his mother he worked in diplomacy and many loved ones were told other fake stories in the next decades. Serving as illegal non-registered agent of the KGB in the United States - the main adversary - is arguable the highest rated mission in intelligence work and more a calling than work, but it had its downsides.

In 1978, after extensive training in secret communications, counter-surveillance, English language and learning his new identity, Albrecht Dittrich finally arrived in the U.S. to shake off his past life and start a new one as Jack Barsky. It was a formidable task to go from zero to hero. His book gives an excellent insight into what it takes to establish a new identity, acquire a fictitious but credible past and the trouble to transfer that fiction onto genuine official documents.

It’s an account of many tricks of the intelligence trade, learning to adapt to the culture and particular habits of an unknown country, getting a university degree all over again, loneliness, the pressure of evading counter-intelligence, improvising solutions to problems that the KGB didn't take into account, missing his wife and child and eventually alienate from his loved ones.

Despite these challenges, Jack Barsky managed to live the American but fictitious Dream and rose from bicycle messenger to successful manager in a large software firm. At the same time, he was challenged in a way that every illegal agent has to cope with. As he began to appreciate the opportunities, given to him by the United States, his dedication to the communist cause faded and he reluctantly decrypted his weekly received radiograms with instructions from KGB headquarters. Eventually, he fell in love and married a woman in the U.S. but his double life took a toll on his marriage. And just when his covert life finally seemed to have embedded perfectly in the land of the main adversary, he was waved aside at the tollgate...

The book is a real page-turner. How Albrecht Dittrich was made a spy, his training, how he embedded as Jack Barsky, what ended his spying career, how he was finally catched and his surprising redemption. But the book doesn't merely provide a fascinating account of espionage tradecraft. It's also a very personal story about the psychological and emotional burden of living a covert life. It unravels the reasons why a self-confident and a bit arrogant young man becomes a dedicated spy who sacrifices his real life in exchange for a fictitious one, how it is to even lose that fabricated life and how he eventually finds a new purpose in life.

You cannot but imagine how you would feel when you had to choose between loyalty to your country, wife and children, cope with building a new future in a country far away and then see everything falling apart. Could you live that covert life, knowing that it can all be over in a blink of an eye?

Deep Undercover: My Secret Life and Tangled Allegiances as a KGB Spy in America, Jack Barsky, ISBN 1496416821

More on Jack Barsky on this blog post and on Jack Barsky's website. You can find more book reviews at my website.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Podcast Nuggets part 3

This month another batch of treats for the ears from around the Internet. We have a CIA officer with an incredible career that spans three decades, a secret nuclear powered military base in Greenland and military missions in Germany that kept the Cold War from getting too hot.

SPYCAST - Cuba Libre Part I, Part II and Part III are a series of fascinating interviews with Felix Rodriguez, a former paramilitary operations officer of the CIA's Special Activities Division. In 1961 he was the leader of the CIA counter-intelligence operation and entered Cuba weeks before the Bay of Pig Invasion. In 1967 he headed and trained a team to track down Che Guevara. Two years later he enlisted in the US Army and flew countless intelligence mission in Vietnam for special CIA units and even got caught up in the Iran-Contra affair. No wonder that they needed three episodes to get his story recorded. Check out Part I, Part II and part III.

STUFF THEY DON'T WANT YOU TO KNOW - Project Iceworm is the construction of a secret U.S. military base on a remote icy plain in Greenland in 1960. The United States had obtained permission from the Danish government to build an arctic research complex to conduct experiments of construction under arctic conditions, the use of small nuclear power plants in remote environments and various other scientific experiments. A least, that was the official version. The real reason for this arctic adventure in the height of the Cold War was less scientific. Camp Century was part of the top secret Project Iceworm, the construction of an underground, or rather, under-ice network of nuclear missile launch sites. This would enable medium-range nuclear missiles to hit Moscow in the event of a nuclear war. See also Camp Century - Greenland Going Nuclear.

SPYCAST - The US Military Liaison Mission in East Germany was one of four Liaison Mission, established after the Second World War. The British, American, Soviet and French allies agreed to accredit military liaison missions near the headquarters of each others occupation zones in Germany. These military liaison missions continued throughout the Cold War until 1990. Initially implemented for economical monitoring and a communications channel between the different allied powers in occupied Germany, the liaison's mission gradually changed into a military intelligence mission when tension rose between the West and the Soviet Union. Major General Michael Ennis, a specialist on the Soviet Union, was one of the officers who spied in East Germany as part of the US Military Liaison Mission. See also The Military Liaison Mission for more information.

MALICIOUS LIFE - Seasons 1, 1.5 and 2 are Ran Levi's fascinating series of podcasts about malware, hacking, cyber crime and war. Season 1 covers the early hackers, spamming and state actors. The whole season 1.5 is dedicated to Stuxnet, the virus that crippled Iran's nuclear gas centrifuges by infecting their control systems with a highly sophisticated worm virus. Season 3 is all about the state actors and cyber war, whistleblowers, propaganda and fake news, North Korean hackers and hacking as a weapon.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

DIANA - A Fast Reciprocal One Time Pad Table

There are various ways to perform one-time pad encryption with letter pads. The Vigenére table is a well known method to encrypt or combine plain and key text into cipher text and vice versa. However, Vigenére has some serious drawbacks. It is cumbersome, time consuming and finding the cross section between letter and key is prone to mistakes. Also, key and cipher text must be processed in the same order by both sender and receiver.

A way faster and easier system is the reciprocal DIANA table. For each column letter there is a normal alphabet and a reversed alphabet. For each column, the reversed alphabet is shifted one position against the previous reversed alphabet and the table is statistically secure (1/26 chance to produce any cipher letter). Such reciprocal tables come in various formats but they all use the same principle. Note that this table is not compatible with the Vigenére table.

Thanks to its reciprocal properties, encryption and decryption are identical and require only a single column. The order of plain, key and cipher letter don't matter and may even differ for sender and receiver. The table is easy to use and it's virtually impossible to make a mistake.

The DIANA Reciprocal One-time Pad Table ( download .txt file format)

To encrypt, we either write plaintext under key or key underneath plaintext. The choice is yours. For each combination of key and plain letter we take the table column that corresponds to the first letter and search underneath it for the second letter on the left. The lower-case letter to its right is the result.

In the example below we wrote the plaintext above the key. To encrypt T with X, find column T in the table, go downward to letter X and find cipher letter j at its right. Thanks to the reciprocal system it doesn't matter whether you combine T with X or X with T. Quite handy!
Plaintext : T H I S   I S   T H E  S E C R E T
OTP-Key   : X V H E   U W   G T P  N O P G D Z 
Ciphertext: J X K D   X L   A Z G  U H I C S H

To decrypt, take column X, go downward to J and find plain letter t at its right. Again, the order of key and cipher letter don't matter. The beauty of this system is the ease and speed of finding plain and cipher letters in whatever order you like best.

There is also a method to memorise the DIANA table and speed up the process even more. When encrypting F + G = O, we can decrypt this as O + G = F, but also as G + O = F. We call this the trigram combination FGO. Because of the reciprocal property, we can use the trigram FGO for any possible combination, that is, FGO, FOG, OFG, OGF, GFO and GOF.

Thus, if you encrypt or decrypt any letter from a trigram with another letter from that trigram you will always get the remaining letter of that trigram, regardless of the order. We therefore only need to remember the trigram FGO and instantly know every variation of the trigram. This reduces the number of combinations to memorise from 676 to 126. FGO can easily be remembered as the word "FOG".

Any user can create his list of mnemonics by memorising the 126 possible trigrams in any desired order. Some other examples are TAG (derived from AGT), BAY (derived from ABY), AIR (as itself), FDR (Franklin D Roosevelt, derived from DFR), HRB (HR Bureau), NNZ (Northern New Zealand), AMN (A-Mu-Nition), BGS (Better Get Smart), MBM (My Best Mate), JTX (Jump The Ex), VHX (Very Hot Ex), WXG (Wild X-Games) or OXO (the game). Tickle your imagination to find your own.

Everyone has his own connotations to easily remember the trigrams. Well trained operators can encrypt and decrypt on-the-fly at high speed without using any table, which is sheer impossible with Vigenére's 676 bigram combinations.

The full list of trigrams (in alphabetic order) to be memorised as any desired combination (e.g. ABY is also AYB, BAY, BYA, YAB and YBA):


With one-time letter pads, punctuations and figures in the plaintext are usually spelled out. However, to limit the message length you generally omit punctuations where it doesn't affect readability. Alternatively, you could use rare letter combinations as a prefix to convert figures or punctuations into letters, for instance QQ or XX.

In that case XXF could be used to switch to figures and XXL to switch to letters, with ABCDEFGHIJ representing the digits 1234567890. Thus, 2581 would become XXFBEHAXXL or XXFBBEEHHAAXXL to exclude errors, which is more economical than having to write out 2581 in letters. XXP could be a period, XXK a comma and XXS a slant. XXC could be Code, a prefix for three or four-letter codes to replace long words or sentences, like XXCABC, where ABC represents “Request further information” or "My location is..."

And the best of all, one-time pad encrypted messages are absolutely unbreakable if the one-time pads are used once only (hence one-time) and destroyed immediately after use. Of course, the letters should be truly random (no algorithm based pseudo-random) and generated either by hardware or a dedicated computer, never connected to the Internet, and printed on a dedicated printer.

You can download the Reciprocal OTP Table and the Reciprocal Trigram List (right-click and save). More technical and historical information about various one-time letter pads and one-time figure pads at Cipher Machines and Cryptology.