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International Last Updated: Nov 10, 2022 - 4:21:02 PM

War is worsening the spy threat from Russia
By Edward Lucas, Times, November 07 2022
Nov 10, 2022 - 4:19:56 PM

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Kremlin blunders have helped unmask their spooks but we still underestimate the danger

Westminster is abuzz with stories of hacked phones. Liz Truss as foreign secretary was one victim, the then-chancellor Philip Hammond another. But a much bigger drama is playing out in the world of human intelligence, with three spectacular spy busts in five months. The most recent is in Norway, where the authorities have arrested a researcher at the University of Tromso. He boasted Canadian academic credentials and a Brazilian passport in the name of José Assis Giammaria. Colleagues found him shy. Prosecutors say he was a spy, which he denies.

Ivory towers are anything but irrelevant for intelligence agencies, which find the trusting and gossipy academic world a playpen. The goal can be to steal research, especially if it involves science or technology; China makes huge efforts in that direction. As Arctic ice melts, western thinking about mineral extraction and sea routes is of obvious interest and Tromso, in the far north, is a good place to start. Another set of targets is people vulnerable to bribery, blackmail or flattery, plus students heading for spookdom.

Giammaria’s mission is still unclear but his cover story quickly unravelled. Sleuthing by Christo Grozev of the Bellingcat open-source investigative project found the email and account password used in his university application featured in a public list of previously compromised login details. The password had been used at least four times by someone signing up for Russian websites. A further search found Giammaria’s picture exactly matched that on a driving licence issued to a Russian called Mikhail Mikushin. More sleuthing showed this individual’s registered address in Russia was a residential building belonging to the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service. Bingo!

This is just the latest embarrassment for the GRU. In August came news that a socialite in Naples, Maria Adela Kuhfeldt Rivera, was actually an intelligence officer called Olga Kolobova. She claimed to have been born in Peru and raised by adoptive parents in Russia. While running a jewellery business she befriended numerous foreigners, many linked to the nearby US Navy base. Another unwitting pal was Marcelle D’Argy Smith, the former editor of Cosmopolitan magazine.

Kolobova’s undoing was her several Russian passports, which had similar serial numbers to those used by GRU officers involved in the attempted poisoning of the ex-spy Sergei Skripal in Britain in 2018. A Bellingcat investigation into that episode revealed that the GRU, with bizarre carelessness, was using sequentially numbered passports for its undercover officers. She fled to Moscow.

A third story involves another supposed Brazilian, Viktor Muller Ferreira. He tried to infiltrate the International Criminal Court in the Hague but was exposed in June by the Dutch security service, the AIVD, as a GRU officer called Sergei Cherkasov. All three were “illegals”, the most elusive kind of spy, who operate under a cover story developed in real life over many years, often involving globetrotting. Few in northern Norway would be able to assess the authenticity of Mikushin’s purported Brazilian background.

In Cold War days, such spies operated with meticulous care and came to light only if they defected. Now, sloppiness is endemic. The AIVD tauntingly published Cherkasov’s aide-memoire, detailing his fictitious childhood. Mikushin had visited Russia to renew his driving licence. Peruvian officials had earlier rejected Kolobova’s passport application as fraudulent. Western countries are getting better at exploiting these blunders. They are combining databases and using artificial intelligence to trawl them for patterns and anomalies.

The fighting in Ukraine has stoked the East-West spy war. An alleged Russian intelligence officer was arrested at Gatwick airport in June. He was released with no further action. The Kremlin is complaining furiously about a failed British attempt to recruit the Russian military attaché in the Netherlands. Norway has also arrested a bunch of Russians who claimed to be tourists but carried high-tech cameras and drones and seemed interested in sensitive military sites.

We underestimate Russia’s efforts to penetrate our societies. We catch some spies. But what about the others? Some countries’ spy-catchers seem half-asleep. Bellingcat found that nobody from Italian counter-intelligence had bothered to quiz Kolobova’s social circle, which might have revealed some clues about her real mission. I found the same when writing a book about the dozen Russian illegals, including the notorious Anna Chapman, exposed in 2010. I interviewed several associates of these spies who, months later, were wondering when someone from officialdom would get in touch.

We need to harden our institutions. Universities can be remarkably blasé about the dangers of snoopers. The University of Bath hired Timo Kivimaki, an academic who served a prison term in Denmark after being convicted of spying for Russia. His ex-colleagues in Copenhagen still fume about him.

Perhaps the biggest point is that technology is making espionage based on fake identities harder. Greed and incompetence mean Russia’s databases are for sale on the internet, or simply leaked. Chinese hackers have wrought havoc in the west too, stealing databases of financial, health, travel and other personal details which make anonymity and deception all but impossible. “Your papers, please!” spells doom to Bond and Blofeld alike.

Source:Ocnus.net 2022

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