Hacker Lexicon: What Is A Digital Dead Drop? A Mainstay Of Spycraft Still Has Plenty Of Relevance In The Digital Age
The title above comes from Andy Greenberg’s November 29, 2019 article he posted to the cyber security and technology blog, WIRED.com. The ‘dead drop,’ a clandestine way of trading information between spies, thieves, and others, has been in existence since spying began. It is a technique that has undergone lots of change and evolution; but, it is remains a staple of spy tradecraft today. For Mr. Greenberg’s full article, I refer you to the November 29 edition of WIRED.com.
Mr. Greenberg begins his article by describing a recent, real-world example of the use of the deaddrop technique. He writes that “for almost three years, starting in the fall of 2015, a fifty-six year old Chinese-American tour guide named Xueha “Edward” Peng would periodically carry out an errand: Every few months, he’d book a room at a certain designated hotel — first in California, and later in Georgia — and leave $10,000 – $20,000 in cash in the room. Inside a dresser drawer, or taped to the bottom of a desk or TV stand. Later, he’d come back to the room and search out an SD card similarly taped to the underside of a piece of furniture, sometimes in a package like a cigarette box. He’d pick it up and leave, and later board a flight to Beijing, where he’d personally deliver the card full of classified secret to his handlers at China’s Ministry of State Security.”
“According to court documents,” Mr. Greenberg notes, “Peng was carrying out a practice intelligence agents and pawns like Peng have used for years, [a technique] known as a ‘dead drop.’ That term of art was helpfully defined by the FBI special agent who would later sign the criminal complaint charging Peng with espionage”: “A dead drop is a method of spycraft used to pass information or items between two individuals, using a secret location, thus not requiring them to meet directly, so as to maintain operational security.”
The dead drop practice/technique was a mainstay for Western and Soviet spies during the heyday of the Cold War. Now, the dead drop technique is gaining momentum in the digital realm. Mr. Greenberg writes that “the software tool, SecureDrop, which WIRED uses along with several other news outlets, allowed sources to send tips and documents to journalists over the anonymity network Tor. In theory, that covers their [digital] tracks and cuts the forensic trail just as completely as a [physical] dead drop, without any risky physical legwork, and allowing for much longer distances.”
“But, when a source and a recipient want to exchange a physical item, software isn’t enough,” Mr. Greenberg wrote. “The Russian Anonymous Marketplace, the most popular Dark Web marketplace in Russia – until it was taken down by law enforcement two years ago — used a combination of Tor, and [physical] dead drops to help dealers distribute their wares to customers. Once a buyer and a seller found each other on the Tor-protected marketsite, and made a deal in a private chat room, many of the sites Moscow-based dealers would offer to leave the buyer’s amphetamines, ecstay, or heroin in a dead drop somewhere in Moscow, usually communicated GPS coordinates and a photo. Some of the users on the site complained in reviews, that overly imaginative dealers had forced them to trek through the woods — one wrote of being startled by a moose in the process — or required them to find the exact city bus where their drugs were hidden under a seat.”
As with almost everything in our lives, the art of spying and the techniuqe of the clandestine dead drop — has gone high tech. USB drives, the access to wireless devices and WiFi, to cellphones, hand-held computers, and the aid of encryption — the digital dead drop is alive and thriving. As Bruce Schneier wrote on his blog, schneieronsecurity,com, as far back as January 2006, “hide your wireless dead drop in plain sight by making it an open, public access point with an Internet connection so the sight of random people loitering with open laptops won’t be at all unusual. To keep the counterespionage agents from wiretapping the hotspots ISP and performing traffic analysis, hang a PC off an access point and use it as a local drop box so the communications in question never go to the ISP.” Technology has certainly dramatically changed since Mr. Schneier pinned that digital note; but, the point is made.
The art of the digital dead drop is alive……and thriving. RCP, fortunascorner.com