How do terrorists who know they’re being monitored by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) communicate with one another? Whenever I get the opportunity to interview people in the intelligence community, I always ask this question. One of the more interesting ways, I once learned, was that some terrorists were using the blogging software WordPress.
There’s a feature on WordPress that allows one blogger to write a draft of something which he/she then “saves as draft” but doesn’t publish. Along comes a second blogger, with proprietary access to the WordPress account, who then reads the draft written by the first blogger (in this case, terrorist), erases those words, and types his/her own message, which is then also saved as a draft. At first, the NSA had a hard time accessing the WordPress system. But then they did. For obvious reasons, I was not told how.
As for me, I talk to my sources on Skype, a software program that allows users to make telephone calls over the Internet for free. The headset you need costs about $59. It is common knowledge that the NSA can’t hack into Skype, which is why it’s a popular tool for anyone who worries, with good reason, that the NSA might be listening in on them — journalists, whistleblowers, and terrorists alike.
Apparently not for long. Internet technology reporter Lewis Page writes in The Register that a source at the Counter Terror Expo in London says, “America’s super secret National Security Agency (NSA) is offering ‘billions’ to any firm which can offer reliable eavesdropping on Skype IM and voice traffic.”
But maybe, just maybe, the NSA and Skype are already in bed together, and the billion-dollar offer being made is just another way to keep the journalists, whistleblowers, and terrorists talking. What better place for the spreading of disinformation than the Counter Terror Expo — in London, no less. Dr. Moshe Yudkowsky believes this may in fact be the case. A physicist and speech technology expert who writes for emerging technology giant O’Reilly.com, Yudkowsky cites a bizarre case in Hungary in March 2007 to make his point.
That’s when a then-Hillary Clinton presidential campaign staffer, who recently left a job at the NSA, was arrested on espionage charges. Hungarian police had examined the staffer’s briefcase and found a transcript between the head of the Hungarian police, a man named Laszlo Bene, and the head of the police in Brussels, Belgium, a man named Stefan Feller. The Clinton staffer confessed to eavesdropping, which in turn produced the transcript of the conversation between the two police chiefs.
But the eavesdropping process, Yudkowsky explains, was far from what you might expect. There was no “bug” hidden in a vase under a mantelpiece or stuck to a lamp. Instead, the “bug” was in the form of the already existing microphone on the Hungarian police chief’s computer. The police chief — like journalists, whistleblowers, and terrorists — also used Skype to communicate. Yudkowsky explains:
Sources in the Hungarian police department revealed that the background traffic associated with running Skype on a personal computer provides an ideal method to hide the transfer of data from an individual’s computer without the owner’s knowledge or consent. Skype can “turn on a computer’s microphone on command,” said a highly placed source, “and no one will be the wiser.” The data are routed to servers that use speech recognition to look for suspicious phrases. Furthermore, algorithms can use the sound of keyclicks to guess at which keys are being struck, which allows anyone listening to determine not only what is being said but what is being typed.
Immediately after the bust, the European Commission opened an investigation. Alain Brun, the head of data protection at the Commission, told reporters, “The suspect [i.e., Clinton staffer] worked at the U.S. National Security Agency, where he learned of an agreement between Skype and Echelon to enable a ‘spy’ mode on all Skype products.” What has yet to be explained is: What did Hillary Clinton’s staffer need this information for? And where has this former Clinton staffer gone?
Dr. Yudkowsky found a source at Dean Witter who believes the Skype-NSA-as-bedfellows idea could explain how Skype has been making money. After all, its users are able to use it for free. “Outside payments by government agencies would explain how Skype can hope to make a profit,” the source told Dr. Yudkowsky. “Otherwise the purchase of Skype by eBay [in 2005] still doesn’t make sense.”
Maybe the NSA has spent its “billions” already, after all.