Intelligence: October 27, 2003

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Spies are spying better due to better commercial electronics. At the U.S. base at Guantanomo, Cuba, a new rule requires anyone leaving to turn in their laptop computer, for a security check, 72 hours before they go. This is in response to military personnel caught leaving the island with information about the terrorist prison on their laptops. Portable computers, and similar electronic devices (PDAs, cell phones with a camera built in and digital cameras in general) have long been seen as a potential security hazard. But many organizations have looked into the problem, decided the cure (checking these devices for illegal files every time they left a secure--one containing secret material-- location) was worth than the problem itself. In the 1990s, some organizations began to bar visitors from taking their laptops into secure areas, and in the last few years, PDAs and cell phones with cameras have been forbidden as well. People who work in secure areas usually can take in devices that have been registered with the security people. But the insiders can still, as happened in Guantanamo, depart with large quantities of secret information. There's also a problem with CDs. Many secure locations have computers equipped with CD recorders. There's nothing to prevent a spy from, say taking a recordable CD, using a special printer (which are widely available, and cost a few hundred bucks) to make the recordable CD look like a music CD, and then record large quantities of secret information on it, and walk out of the secure facility with the "music" CD. Before these electronic gadgets appeared, getting lots of secret material out of a secure location was difficult. Large quantities of paper were easy to spot. But with electronic data, a lot can be put in a very small place. Such possibilities give security officers nightmares. New technology is being proposed, that would quickly examine all electronic devices and media coming out of a secure facility to make sure no classified material is leaving. But this gear is expensive, and largely still in development. So, despite the risks, most secure locations still rely mainly on trust to keep their secret data from wandering away.

 


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