Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Can your camcorder spy on you?

I've been catching up on my reading. On the list: David Sanger's Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power. It's a good book, though it's one of those volumes that requires some between-the-lines interpretation.

The chapter on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden begins with a rather mysterious revelation. Toward the beginning of the Obama era, two CIA guys -- Stephen Kappes and Michael Leiter -- consulted with a few "boffins" (if I may use that old-fashioned Britishism) for ideas on how to track down down Bin Laden. The scientists came up with an interesting suggestion...

(Wait. Before going on, I have to ask: Why didn't Kappes and Leiter simply ask former CIA director Porter Goss? He once said that he knew Bin Laden's location. Why am I the only person in the world who remembers that remark?)

Back to our story. The scientists suggested a ploy involving camcorders...
Bin Laden loved nothing more than to make videos that kept his message alive, and someone had to be producing and distributing those videos. So the labs came up with the idea of flooding Pakistan with new digital cameras in hopes that bin Laden’s videographers were eager for an upgrade. Each digital camera, the labs said, contained a unique signature with signals that are identifiable and, with luck, traceable.* Wouldn’t it be the ultimate irony if bin Laden’s next video threat to destroy the West became a beacon for a Predator drone strike? Within months, new cameras seeped into the distribution chain in Peshawar, where everyone in the tribal regions comes to shop. It was a pretty brilliant strategy.

Alas, it didn’t work. It turned out that Osama bin Laden hadn’t been in the rugged mountains of Pakistan for years. Instead, he was making his videos from a dank living room, barely a mile from where Pakistan’s entire military leadership had been trained.

Leiter declines to talk about the cell that he and Kappes ran; the techniques they used, including the traceable digital cameras, are still relied on by the CIA and law enforcement officials, and remain highly classified.
Here's the footnote:
The program remains highly classified, because similar operations exploit the same technology. Some details have been omitted here at the request of government officials.
Call me nebby, but I would like to know more details. Y'see, videos are normally taken by camcorders. And the idea of a camcorder sending out "signals" that are "traceable"...

Well. That's more than a little strange, isn't it?

Camcorders aren't supposed to hop onto the internet. They aren't supposed to send out a signal of any kind.

Conceivably, the spooks were hoping that Bin Laden would switch to making videos with an iPhone. Obviously, an iPhone does send out a traceable signal -- but you'd have to be one dumb, dumb jihadi to use a device like that.

Sanger's book contains a few other between-the-lines goodies.

An earlier chapter discusses a 2009 scare in which the Pakistani insurgent group Tehrik-i-Taliban was alleged to have gotten hold of a nuke from Pakistan's arsenal. Pakistan is said to have at least a hundred bombs, secreted in various areas which they assiduously keep secret from the United States. (Why? Because the US may want to take out those bombs preemptively, if the government of Pakistan ever falls into the hands of people we really cannot tolerate.)

When word of the "missing nuke" came out, the US naturally informed the Pakistanis, who decided to count their warheads. They did so; nothing had gone missing. The US said that they must have misunderstood the "chatter."

I think that the "missing nuke" story may well have been an American ruse designed to force the ISI (Pakistan's CIA) to double-check its entire nuclear stockpile. Since the NSA listens in on just about everything the ISI says or does, our spooks probably received some excellent clues as to where the bombs were located.

(Of course, that's just my theory. Sanger, obviously, doesn't say anything of that sort.)

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