Alleged spy at British embassy in Berlin aroused suspicion by not using bank account

British embassy BerlinAn employee of the British embassy in Berlin, who was arrested last week on suspicion of spying for Russia, drew the attention of the authorities after he stopped using his bank account, according to reports. The man, who was arrested on August 10 by Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), has been identified in German media as David Smith, 57. His arrest is believed to have come as a result of a joint investigation by British and German authorities.

Smith is a longtime resident of Potsdam, a city located southeast of Berlin, and was married for 20 years to a woman from Ukraine, who is believed to have Russian heritage. According to some reports, however, his wife has not been living with him for some time. It has also been reported that Smith had been working for the British embassy in Berlin “for three or four years” in the period leading up to his arrest last week. It is also believed that he had previously served in the Royal Air Force and the Germany Guard Service (GGS). The latter is a joint British-German civilian volunteer force with roots in the Cold War, which provides security support to British Forces stationed in Germany.

Last week, several German news outlets said that Smith first aroused suspicions among British and German counterintelligence experts, after they noticed that he had not made use of his debit or credit cards for several months. His sudden lack of withdrawals from his bank accounts caused them to think that may have secured a cash-based source of income —possibly from a foreign intelligence agency. Citing anonymous intelligence officials, German media report that Smith passed on “low-grade information” to his Russian handlers, including lists of names of visitors to the British embassy. He was arrested, however, after British and German authorities allegedly feared that he was preparing to give Moscow more sensitive information in his possession.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 August 2021 | Permalink

Employee of British embassy in Berlin charged with spying for Russia

British embassy in BerlinAn employee of the British embassy in Berlin has been arrested by German authorities, who charged him with spying for the intelligence services of the Russian Federation, according to reports. The German newsmagazine Focus said on Wednesday that the employee is a 57-year-old British citizen. He was reportedly arrested on Tuesday by Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA). His arrest took place in Potsdam, a city located southeast of Berlin. His arrest is believed to have come as a result of a joint investigation by British and German authorities.

There appears to be some confusion about the man’s position at the British embassy. In some reports, he is referred to as a “liaison officer”, a term that describes diplomatic personnel whose job is to exchange security-related information with the relevant authorities of the host-country. However, other reports suggest that the man is locally based in Berlin, and was working as support personnel at the British embassy, without having been granted diplomatic status. This would mean that he does not have diplomatic immunity in Germany or elsewhere.

It is also believed that BKA officers searched the man’s home and workplace. According to Focus, he has been charged with carrying out espionage activities on behalf of Russian intelligence. German prosecutors said he began working for Russian intelligence in November of 2020 at the very latest. During that time, he allegedly provided classified information to his Russian handlers on at least one occasion, in exchange for cash. Media reports suggest that the information he allegedly gave the Russians relates to counter-terrorism operations. No further information is known about the case at this stage.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 August 2021 | Permalink

Israeli AG investigating claims that ex-Mossad chief had extra-marital relationship

Yossi CohenTHE GOVERNMENT OF ISRAEL is reportedly investigating allegations that Yossi Cohen, who recently stepped down from the helm of the Mossad, Israel’s external spy agency, had an extra-marital affair for two years. It is also claimed that the extra-marital relationship took place while Cohen was director of the Mossad, and that he shared classified information with his alleged mistress, who is reportedly a flight attendant.

Cohen, 59, with four children, assumed the directorship of the Mossad in 2015. He is a 35-year veteran of Israel’s pre-eminent spy agency, which he left briefly in 2013 to chair Israel’s National Security Council and advise the prime minister. He is known as one of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s most trusted advisers. Cohen grew up in Jerusalem and became a fighter pilot before joining the Mossad. He gradually rose through the agency’s ranks to become its deputy director. Prior to that role, he led for several years the Mossad’s Department of Collections, which handles operations officers around the world. He then led the agency’s Political Action and Liaison Department, which is tasked with facilitating cooperation between the Mossad and foreign intelligence agencies.

According to Israel’s privately owned Channel 13 television, Israel’s Ministry of Justice is currently handling an official complaint, according to which Cohen has been having “a close relationship” for the past two years with a woman who is not his wife, and who is believed to be a flight attendant. Additionally, the complaint claims that Cohen shared classified information with his alleged mistress during the course of their affair. According to Channel 13, the complaint has been handed over to the Attorney General of Israel, Avichai Mandelblit, who is reviewing it.

The Channel 13 report said Cohen has strongly denied the allegations, saying that “there is no flight attendant [and] there is no close relationship”. The former Mossad chief added that he had not been contacted by Attorney General Mandelblit about the complaint, or for any other reason. The television station gave no further information about the alleged complaint, the identity of the flight attendant, or the state of the Attorney General Mandelblit’s investigation.

Earlier this month, it was announced that Cohen would head the Israel-based investment arm of SoftBank, a Japanese-headquartered multinational conglomerate holding company, which specializes in investing in firms in the financial, energy and technology sectors of the economy.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 July 2021 | Permalink

Two decades after 9/11, West must refocus on threats by state actors, MI5 chief says

MI5 HQ Thames HouseNearly 20 years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, it is time for Western intelligence agencies to refocus on stopping covert operations by foreign state actors, according to the director of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency. General Ken McCallum is a 20-year career officer in the Security Service (MI5), Britain’s counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence agency. He assumed the position of director in April of 2020, amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

In a rare public speech on Wednesday, General McCallum said it made sense why, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Western spy services dedicated unprecedented attention and resources to countering terrorist threats. Efforts during these two decades have concentrated on preventing attacks by religious extremists, both domestically and abroad. General McCallum went on to say that, in light of the ongoing instability in Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere, religious extremism will continue to require both attention and resources by Western spy agencies.

But he added that, even though counter-terrorism remains MI5’s primary task, the agency recognizes the need to “refocus attention” to threats from state actors. The attention given in the past two decades to non-state groups has allowed countries like Russia, China and Iran to develop “a growing assertiveness” in the areas of covert operations, said General McCallum. As a result, their activities in the fields of espionage, sabotage, and even assassinations, have become “increasingly daring” and threatening.

Spies working for foreign countries have killed targets, stolen sensitive technology, and tried to recruit public figures and other key individuals through blackmail. They have also attacked telecommunications infrastructure and have perfected a host of methods for launching cyber-attacks on both the public and private sectors, with potentially catastrophic consequences, he said.

The MI5 chief illustrated his statements by revealing that British counterintelligence officers have “disrupted hostile power activity” on British soil, which could otherwise have resulted in the killing of a targeted individual. He said that this operation took place after the attempted assassination of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, in the spring of 2018, but provided no further details.

General McCallum’s statement came as prosecutors in the United States charged four Iranian intelligence officers with participating in a plot to kidnap Masih Alinejad, an Iranian-American New York-based journalist and human-rights activist, who is known for her critical stance of the government in Tehran.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 14 July 2021 | Permalink

Polish counterintelligence arrest man for giving military secrets to Russia

Poland ABW

POLAND’S COUNTERINTELLIGENCE AGENCY HAS announced the arrest of a Polish citizen, who reportedly admitted spying for Russian military intelligence. The 43-year-old man has been named only as “Marcin K.”, in compliance with Polish law. He was reportedly arrested on May 5 by officers of the Internal Security Agency (ABW), Poland’s domestic counter-intelligence agency.

According to ABW spokesman Stanisław Żaryn, the accused spy had been handing over classified “information and materials” to the Russian secret services. Much of the classified information reportedly related to the “military field”. The Russians also received sensitive information relating to “Polish entities and citizens”, according to government prosecutors. The Polish government described the information as “extremely important for Russian operations […] and to the detriment of the Republic of Poland”. No further information has been provided about the case.

Importantly, Polish authorities have not shared information about Marcin K.’s possible Russian handlers, who are likely to be employees of the Russian embassy in Warsaw. Regular intelNews readers will recall that Poland was among several European countries that expelled Russian diplomats last month, following a call for solidarity by the Czech Republic. Prague issued the call after it expelled 18 Russian diplomats in protest against an explosion that totaled a remote munition depot in the east of the country, which the Czechs claim was part of a Russian intelligence operation. In addition to expelling a number of Russian diplomats, Poland joined Hungary and Slovakia in issuing a joint statement decrying what it described as “deplorable act[s] of aggression and breach of international law committed by Russia on European soil”.

According to news reports, Marcin K. has been placed in pre-trial detention for three months, as investigators are interviewing witnesses and gathering material evidence for a pending trial.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 May 2021 | Permalink

US Army Special Forces soldier sentenced to 15 years for spying for Russia

Peter Debbins

A FORMER MEMBER OF the United States Army’s Special Forces has been sentenced for spying for Russia for 15 years, after he was reportedly groomed by Russian military intelligence at a young age. Peter Debbins, 46, born in the US to an American father and a Soviet-born mother, admitted in 2020 to spying for Russia for over 20 years.

Even though he had Russian background from his mother’s side of the family, he had never been to Russia until he traveled there in 1994. On that trip he met his Russian family members for the first time, as well as a young Russian woman who would eventually become his wife. In 1996 Debbins returned to Russia as an exchange student from the University of Minnesota, and reconnected with a Russian woman. She was from the city of Chelyabinsk, located near the Russian-Kazakh border. The woman’s father was reportedly a colonel in the Russian Air Force.

It was during that second trip, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, that he was spotted by the Main Directorate of the Russian Armed Forces’ General Staff, known commonly as GRU. By 1997, when Debbins returned to Russia to marry his girlfriend, he was already working for the GRU, according to US government prosecutors. It is stated in his indictment that he told his GRU handler he saw himself as a “son of Russia” and sought to limit America’s dominance in the world.

Between 1998 and 2005, Debbins served in the US Army, where he became a Green Beret. He was discharged and lost his security clearance after “violating protocols” while he was stationed in Azerbaijan. Throughout his time in the US Army, Debbins frequently traveled to Russia, where his wife was studying at the time. While there he met with his GRU handlers. The court heard that he gave the GRU information on a variety of classified subjects, as well as private information on other members of the Green Berets. This information was intended to be used to blackmail these soldiers to work for the GRU.

Following his stint in the US Army, Debbins worked as a contractor for the US military, on topics relating to Russian language translation, as well as counterintelligence. Throughout that time, he reportedly continued to apply for dozens of positions in the US intelligence community, but without success. He is believed to have stopped spying for Russia in 2011.

The judge who hand down Debbins’ sentence ordered that his incarceration should begin immediately. Debbins’ legal team has requested that he be incarcerated near the Washington Metropolitan Area, so that he can remain in contact with his wife and four daughters.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 May 2021 | Permalink

Analysis: Without fanfare, FBI places Putin’s right-hand man on most wanted list

Yevgeny PrigozhinWITHOUT MUCH FANFARE LAST week, the Federal Bureau of Investigation placed on its most wanted list Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest collaborators. Known as “Putin’s chef”, for providing catering services to the Kremlin, Prigozhin was indicted in February 2018 by United States prosecutors for his alleged role in Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential elections. According to the Special Counsel investigation, led by Robert Mueller, Prigozhin bankrolled the Internet Research Agency (IRA), which in turn played a central coordinating role in the effort to influence the outcome of the elections.

But it is one thing to be indicted by the US government, and quite another to be placed on the FBI’s most wanted list. What does this mean? And why did the FBI wait three years to place Prigozhin on its list of infamy?

With characteristic flamboyance, Prigozhin boasted victory against the FBI back in March of 2020, when US federal prosecutors requested that the Mueller-era criminal case against Concord Management and Consulting (CMC) be dismissed. Founded in 1995, CMC is Prigozhin’s flagship company. According to the US government, CMC was used to fund the IRA’s activities in the run-up to the 2016 US elections. Although some were surprised by that decision, it made sense from an intelligence point of view. US federal prosecutors said at the time that it would not be possible to prove the allegations against CMC due to a “classification determination”. The term basically meant that the US government could not prove the claims made against CMC without revealing “methods and sources”. The term refers to witnesses that have probably been recruited as US government assets, as well as to methods of surveillance that the government wishes to keep secret.

Even though the individual indictment against Prigozhin was never dropped, the flamboyant Russian boasted at the time that the dismissal of the case against CMC proved that he was not implicated in the US election meddling affair. He became even more boastful after September of last year, when Interpol removed his name from its international alert list. He reportedly began traveling outside Russia again, something that he had stopped doing after his 2018 indictment, out of an abundance of caution. At that time, everyone assumed that US prosecutors would eventually drop the case against Prigozhin too, for the same reason they had dropped the CMC case —namely a “classification determination”. Read more of this post

CIA tells retired personnel to refrain from working for foreign governments

CIATHE CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY has told its retired personnel to refrain from working for foreign governments, “either directly or indirectly”. This was communicated in a note that, according to The New York Times, was drafted several months ago, but was sent out this week by Sheetal Patel, who serves as assistant director for counterintelligence at the CIA.

In the note, Patel reportedly writes that the agency has been noticing a “detrimental trend” of former CIA employees being hired by “foreign governments”, whose goal is to “build up their spying capabilities”. She adds that former CIA personnel who are employed by foreign governments “either directly or indirectly” may effectively undermine the mission of the CIA and “benefit […] foreign adversaries”.

In her note, Patel also urges retired CIA personnel to limit their participation in the media, including television broadcasts, conference panels, podcasts and activity on social media platforms. Media activity by former CIA personnel embodies “[t]he risk of unintended disclosure of classified information or confirmation of classified information by our adversaries”, writes Patel. This risk “increases with each exposure outside of established US government channels”, she concludes.

The paper said it contacted CIA spokeswoman Nicole de Haay, who rejected the claim that Patel’s note was unusual in any way. The CIA “routinely reiterate[s] counterintelligence guidance to current and former CIA officers alike”, said de Haay, adding that “reading more into [Patel’s note] than that is a mistake”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 January 2021 | Permalink

Holland expels two Russian diplomats, summons Kremlin envoy to issue protest

AIVD HollandOn 10 December 2020, the Dutch Minister of the Interior and Kingdom Relations, Kajsa Ollongren, sent a letter to the House of Representatives to inform them about the disruption of a Russian espionage operation in the Netherlands by the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD).

In connection with Ollongren’s revelations, two Russians using a diplomatic cover to commit espionage on behalf of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) were expelled from the Netherlands. The Russian ambassador to the Netherlands was summoned by the Dutch ministry of Foreign Affairs, which informed him that the two Russians have been designated as persona non grata (unwanted persons). In an unusual move, the AIVD also issued a press statement about this incident in English. The AIVD also released surveillance footage (see 32nd minute of video) of one of the two Russian SVR officers meeting an asset at a park and exchanging material.

The two expelled persons were officially accredited as diplomats at the Russian embassy in The Hague. Minister Ollongren says one of the two SVR intelligence officers built a “substantial” network of sources working in the Dutch high-tech sector. He pursued unspecified information about artificial intelligence, semiconductors, and nano technology that has both civilian and military applications. The Netherlands has designated “High Tech Systems and Materials” (HTSM) as one of 10 “Top Sectors” for the Dutch economy.

In some cases the sources of the SVR officers received payments for their cooperation. According to Erik Akerboom, Director-General of the AIVD, said the agency had detected “relatively intensive” contact between sources and the SVR officers in ten cases. The case involves multiple companies and one educational institute, whose identities have not been revealed. The minister states in her letter that the espionage operation “has very likely caused damage to the organizations where the sources are or were active, and thereby to the Dutch economy and national security”.

The minister announced that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (IND) will take legal action against one source of the two Russians, on the basis of immigration law. The minister also announced that the government will look into possibilities to criminalize the act of cooperating with a foreign intelligence service. Currently, that act on and by itself is not a punishable offense. Under current Dutch and European law, legal possibilities do exist to prosecute persons for violation of confidentiality of official secrets or company secrets.

This newly revealed espionage operation follows other incidents in the Netherlands, including a GRU operation in 2018 that targeted the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, and a case in 2015 involving a talented Russian physicist working on quantum optics at the Eindhoven University of Technology. In the latter case, no information was made public about what information the physicist sold to Russian intelligence services. And in 2012, a senior official of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs was arrested for intending to sell classified official information to a Russian couple in Germany who spied for Russia. He was eventually given an eight year prison sentence.

Author: Matthijs Koot | Date: 14 December 2020 | Permalink

Chinese authorities announce counterespionage crackdown with 100s of arrests

China and Taiwan

Authorities in China said on Sunday that a nationwide counterespionage operation launched earlier this year has identified “hundreds of espionage cases”, most of them involving Taiwanese intelligence agencies. In a concerted fashion, Chinese state-run media published dozens of reports over the weekend, hailing the alleged success of the project.

According to the reports, China’s Ministry of State Security codenamed the operation THUNDER 2020. It follows on the heels of an earlier counterespionage crackdown, known as THUNDER 2018, or THUNDERBOLT 2018. Last year, Chinese authorities said that the year-long 2018 operation had uncovered over 100 espionage cases throughout mainland China

The information released on Sunday includes claims that espionage activities uncovered under the THUNDER 2020 crackdown centered on “attempts to disrupt cross-Straits exchanges” —meaning efforts by China to raise support among the Taiwanese for reunification with the mainland. Other alleged espionage activities focused on encouraging “Hong Kong separatism” and on “instigating diplomatic ties between […] China and other countries”. No specific information was provided to support these claims.

In what appears to be a controlled leak, several Chinese news media reported on the case of a Taiwanese businessman identified as Li Mengju, or Lee Meng-chu. He was allegedly arrested in August of 2019 by authorities in the in southeastern Chinese city of Shenzhen, which is adjacent to Hong Kong. “Anonymous” sources in Shenzhen claim that Lee directs the “Taiwan Independence organization”, as well as another group calling itself “Taiwan United Nations Association” or “Association for the Advancement of Taiwan”. These appear to be groups that campaign against the possible reunification of Taiwan with China.

According to Chinese state-run sources, Lee was arrested “at a harbor in Shenzhen as he tried to flee after he was spotted conducting espionage activities”. He was allegedly found to be in possession of audiovisual material that had been “taken illegally” and included “secret-level military information”, such as “combat equipment, and quantity of troops”. No further information was provided by Chinese media.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 October 2020 | Permalink

Britain to ‘modernize’ counterespionage laws following criticism from parliament

James BrokenshireSenior United Kingdom officials have said the country will seek to “modernize” its laws on counterespionage, after a long-awaited parliamentary report criticized the government for failing to stop Russian spy operations. Earlier this week saw the release of the report by the British Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee. The report [.pdf] focuses on Russia. It concludes that British intelligence agencies remain incapable of combating espionage and psychological operations by Russian spy agencies, of which many aim to influence British politics on a mass scale.

On Wednesday Britain’s Minister of State for Security, James Brokenshire, pushed back against the report’s findings that the government had failed to manage the thread posed by Russian intelligence activities on British soil. Speaking during an extraordinary meeting of parliament to discuss the report, Brokenshire rejected claims that a succession of British conservative administrations went out of their way to avoid investigating Russian spy activities. He claimed that the activities of the Kremlin remained one of Britain’s “top national security priorities”. During the same meeting, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told members of parliament that “no country in the Western world is more vigilant in countering Russia” than the United Kingdom.

Some government officials said the government now plans to implement a new Espionage Bill, which is currently in the drafting stage, and is expected to provide the authorities with more powers to combat foreign espionage. Additionally, Whitehall is considering initiating a large-scale review of the Official Secrets Act and redrafting it so as to include a foreign agent registration clause. The proposed clause would resemble the Foreign Agent Registration Act in the United States, which requires those working or lobbying on behalf of a foreign government —except accredited diplomats— to register with the authorities.

This would allow British authorities to arrest, deport or imprison those found working on behalf of foreign powers, even if they are never caught committing espionage or transmitting classified information to a foreign entity.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 23 July 2020 | Permalink

More spies today in Australia than at the height of the Cold War, says intel chief

ASIO AustraliaThere are more foreign spies and their proxies operating today in Australia than during the height of the Cold War, according to the director of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). This claim was made on Monday by Mike Burgess, who in 2019 was appointed director of the ASIO —Australia’s primary domestic security agency. Burgess added that the level of threat Australia faces from foreign espionage and other foreign interference activities is “currently unprecedented”.

Burgess made these comments during the AFIO’s Annual Threat Assessment, a new project that aims to inform Australians about counterintelligence activities against their country and highlight AFIO’s response. The agency’s director said that Australia is being targeted by “sophisticated and persistent espionage and foreign interference activities” from “a range of nations”, which “are affecting parts of the community that they did not touch during the Cold War”.

Additionally, the instigators of espionage operations against Australia have “the requisite level of capability, the intent and the persistence to cause significant harm” to Australia’s national security, said Burgess. The country is being targeted due to its strategic position and its close alliances with the leading Western countries, he said, and added that Australia’s advanced science and technology posture also attracts foreign espionage.

Burgess illustrated his presentation using the example of an unnamed “foreign intelligence service” that allegedly sent what he described as “a sleeper agent” to Australia. The agent, said Burgess, remained dormant for a number of years, quietly building links with the business community. During that time, the agent remained in contact with his foreign handlers and provided “on-the-ground logistical support” for foreign spies who visited Australia to carry out espionage.

The ASIO director did not identify the alleged “sleeper agent”, or the foreign countries that he alleged are spying against Australia. When asked about Burgess’ claims, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that the government would not name the countries behind the alleged espionage activities. Doing so, said Morrison, would not be in Australia’s national interest. Instead, “we’ll deal with this in Australia’s national interest, in the way we believe that’s best done”, he added.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 February 2020 | Permalink

US arrests Mexican man for spying for Russia in mystery case involving informant

FBI MiamiThe United States Federal Bureau of Investigation has arrested a Mexican man, who is accused of spying in the city of Miami on behalf of the Russian government. Local media reports suggest that the target of the man’s spying was a Russian defector who gave American authorities information about Russian espionage activities on US soil.

In a news release issued on Tuesday, the US Department of Justice identified the man as Hector Alejandro Cabrera Fuentes, a Mexican citizen residing in Singapore. The statement said that Fuentes was arrested on Monday and was charged with “conspiracy” and “acting within the United States on behalf of a foreign government”.

According to the statement, Fuentes was recruited in April of 2019 by an unnamed Russian government official. His first assignment was to rent an apartment in Miami-Dade County using fake identification. One he carried out the assignment, Fuentes allegedly traveled to Russia, where he briefed his handler. He was then asked to return to Miami and drive to an apartment complex, where he was to observe a vehicle belonging to an individual that the Department of Justice statement describes as a “US government source”. Fuentes was tasked with providing his Russian handler with the vehicle’s license plate number.

Having been given a detailed physical description of the vehicle by his Russian handler, Fuentes drove to the apartment complex in Miami, but was stopped at the entrance to the complex by a security guard. While Fuentes was speaking with the security guard, Fuentes’ wife allegedly exited the car and took a photograph of the vehicle in question. According to the FBI, she later shared the photograph with Fuentes’ Russian handler on the mobile phone application WhatsApp. The photograph was discovered by US Customs and Border Protection agents on the smartphone of Fuentes’ wife on Sunday, as the pair tried to board a flight to Mexico City.

The US Department of Justice news release does not identify Fuentes’ alleged espionage target. But an article in The Miami Herald claims that the target is an FBI informant who has provided the Bureau’s counterintelligence division with critical information about Russian espionage operations in the Miami area. Fuentes is scheduled to appear in court for a pretrial detention hearing this coming Friday. His arraignment has been scheduled for March 3. The press release does not explain why Fuentes’ wife was not arrested.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 February 2020 | Permalink

FBI examining FaceApp over potential counterintelligence concerns

FBIThe United States Federal Bureau of Investigation says it is examining possible counterintelligence threats in connection with the popular online application FaceApp, which is headquartered in Russia. The application first made its appearance in January of 2017 and quickly became popular among smartphone users around the world. It allows users to upload a photograph of their face and then edit it with the help of artificial-intelligence software. The software can change the user’s photograph to make it look younger or older, or make it look as if it is from the opposite gender. The result can be impressively realistic and life-like.

The St. Petersburgh-based company behind FaceApp, Wireless Lab, claims that the photos of users are uploaded to cloud servers situated in New Zealand, Australia and Singapore. They are then deleted within two days from the moment they are uploaded by users, without ever being transferred to servers located in the territory of Russia. But the FBI does not seem to believe these assurances. In a letter sent late last month to the Minority Leader of the US Senate, Charles Schumer (D-NY), the Bureau said it was examining FaceApp as part of its counterintelligence mission.

In the letter, which was published on Monday, Jill Tyson, Assistant Director of the FBI’s Office of Congressional Affairs, said the fact that Wireless Lab is based in Russia raised a number of counterintelligence concerns. These relate to the types of data Wireless Lab collects on its customers and the privacy policies that apply to Russian Internet companies. According to Tyson, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) has the right to “remotely access all communications and servers on Russian networks without making a request” to network providers. He added that, if the FBI found that FaceApp was involved in activities meant to interfere with upcoming elections in the United States, the Bureau would investigate the matter further, and possibly involve the Foreign Influence Task Force, an FBI-led body that was established after the 2016 US presidential elections.

The FBI’s letter was written in response to an earlier letter sent to the Bureau by Senator Schumer in July, which expressed concerns about potential threats posed by FaceApp to the privacy of American Internet users and to the nations’ security as a whole.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 03 December 2019 | Permalink

FBI files espionage charges against California man who allegedly spied for China

Xuehua Edward PengThe United States has pressed espionage charges against a naturalized American citizen who operated as a courier for Chinese intelligence while working as a tour operator in California. On Monday federal prosecutors in San Francisco filed espionage charges against Xuehua “Edward” Peng, a 56-year-old Chinese-born American citizen. Peng, a trained mechanical engineer, reportedly entered the United States in June 2001 on a temporary visa. In 2012 he became a naturalized American citizen. By that time he was working for US Tour and Travel, an independent tour operator in California.

On Friday, officers with the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Peng at his home in Hayward, California, and charged him with spying on behalf of the Ministry of State Security (MSS), which is China’s primary external intelligence agency. At a press conference held on Monday, David Anderson, US Attorney for the Northern District of California, said that Peng began working for the MSS in June 2015 and continued to do so until June of 2018. Throughout that time, Peng participated in at least six dead drops on behalf of the MSS, said the FBI. But he was unaware that the agent on the other end of the dead drop was in fact an FBI informant, who had lured Peng and the MSS into an elaborate sting operation. The informant is referred to in the indictment as “the source”. The FBI said it paid the informant nearly $200,000 to facilitate the sting operation.

Most of the dead drops took place at a hotel in Newark, California. Peng would book a room in the hotel using a popular online booking service. He would check in and go to his hotel room, where he would hide envelopes containing as much as $20,000 in cash. He would then leave the room key at the front desk for his contact to pick up. The contact (the FBI informant) would pick up the key and the cash, and leave memory sticks with classified US government information for Peng to pick up. Peng would then travel to China to deliver the classified information to the MSS.

Unbeknownst to Peng, the FBI was monitoring him all along, and managed to secretly tape his alleged espionage activities. The surveillance footage is now part of the federal affidavit that was unsealed on Monday. Moreover, the FBI appears to have given Peng classified information that was approved for the purposes of the counterespionage operation against him. It is not known whether the classified information was real, deceptive, or a mixture of the two. It is worth noting that Peng is not a foreign diplomat and is therefore not subject to the rules of diplomatic immunity. He now faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 if convicted.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 01 October 2019 | Permalink