The Spy & The Mobile Phone

by Stephen Bryen

An American, Ryan Christopher Fogle, working as a third secretary in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow was arrested by Russian security police and subsequently deported.  The arrest, featuring photos of the man pushed to the ground and wearing a bizarre wig, and other snapshots of his interrogation, along with other wigs, cash in envelopes, a compass, a flashlight, three different sunglasses, a Moscow map atlas, a letter in Russian, an RFID shield, and a knife have raised numerous questions.  The Washington Post said there was something “fishy” about the case, and CBS News and others commented that the mobile phone Fogle was ostensibly carrying was very old and did not have any smart phone features.

We have no idea if this is the usual kit of CIA spies.  One can argue that all of it was planted on Fogle and because he was a CIA operative, it did not really matter.  Certainly the CIA was not going to comment, one way or the other.  Secret services neither confirm nor deny.
While we have no inside knowledge on Fogle and the case the Russians are making, two items caught our attention.
The first was the RFID “sleeve.”  This is a metallic sleeve into which you can put a passport, an ID badge and credit cards.  Once inside, external snooping devices cannot read the passport, driver’s license, ID or credit cards because the sleeve shields them from electromagnetic waves.  You can buy these online and they are recommended for protecting your ID and your credit card information. It would make sense for a spy to have a sleeve like this.
The second was a mobile phone, a very simple phone without the data channels and fancy screens of modern smart phones.  Why would a spy use a simple phone?
The reason is that a simple phone is harder to track than a smart phone.  Such a phone would lack the WIFI, Bluetooth and GPS features of a smart phone, it would contain very little information, and it is likely the SIM card (that authorizes the phone) was under some fake name.  So the agent or spy would be able to operate without being easily tracked.  In fact, it seems the Russians were able to grab him because he set up a meeting with his Russian target, and when he went to him he was grabbed by the Russian FSB security police.  
Even so, the Russian security people were able to record a phone conversation with the target, because the target tipped them off.  The offer of up to $1 million to spy for the United States did not turn the target into a cooperating resource.
Fogle also supposedly offered the source a way to communicate through Gmail but to do so either with a “clean” mobile phone or a “clean” laptop computer, which according to news reports, the CIA was willing to pay for if not purchase.  He recommended using an Internet cafe as a way of improving on anonymity.   While such cafes may be useful in places such as Pakistan (where terrorists use them), in Moscow one can be reasonably sure that anyone entering such a place is photographed and ID’d.  So this proposal should go into the category of “stupid.”
In any case, we still can’t be sure that Fogle wasn’t set up and that there isn’t “something fishy” about the whole thing.  But what the Russians have put on the table so far also makes sense. Be careful with your smart phone.
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