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SpyCatchers
Special Report

SpyCatchers

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Surveillance Methods
The key to counterespionage is keeping tabs on suspicious behavior or people. This includes not only noting who enters the country, but also monitoring the activities and communications of those living in the U.S. who may be planning a strike. Spying in the service of counterterrorism is focused primarily on surveillance.

The Gs: Low-Key Success
Despite the association of spying with high-tech gadgetry, one of the most effective surveillance weapons used by the FBI is nondescript personnel known officially as "special surveillance groups." Called "the Gs" in bureau lingo, these elite operatives dress down to blend in as students, street people, maintenance workers, and the rest of the population. They shadow the movements of people under suspicion, noting where they go and whom they meet without raising suspicion themselves. The Gs document a suspect's activities, especially those out of the ordinary. Do they, for example, appear overly interested in a particular bridge or building? This vital information can then be circulated to other intelligence agencies.

The Gs demonstrated their effectiveness dramatically in 1999 when a few of them, purely by chance, spotted a man they recognized as a Russian agent lingering in his car outside the U.S. State Department building in Washington. (The Gs memorize the faces of prominent foreign agents). They began shadowing the man, Stanislav Gusev, and noticed that several times a week he parked in the exact same spot, settled in the same bench, and fiddled with something in his pocket. Eventually they discovered Gusev was receiving transmissions from a bug planted inside the State Building. The bug was found and Gusev was forced to leave the country.

Eavesdropping
Intelligence agencies can monitor communications of suspected terrorists or those supporting them in a number of ways: wiretaps on phones, bugs placed inside rooms or in cars, or longer-range listening devices that can pick up outdoor conversations. Sophisticated technology also allows agents to monitor computer activity without detection, reading e-mails and tracking Web site visits. With a court order, an FBI surveillance system called Carnivore -- later given the alternate name "DCS1000" -- can be installed on the networks of Internet providers and intercept all communications and records sent to or from the target of an investigation. (The Carnivore name supposedly stems from its ability to find the "meat" in large amounts of data -- the target's communications -- while ignoring other Internet traffic.)

Getting a court order for Internet surveillance generally follows guidelines used for installing wiretaps. The order specifies the suspect under investigation, the exact e-mail address or Internet provider address to be tapped, the crime being investigated, and the exact equipment to be tapped. Most of these orders allow the FBI to record only information about e-mail addresses, servers, and files without recording actual content. Using Carnivore to record content can happen only when investigating certain felonies, including terrorism, drug trafficking, and kidnapping. Court orders for content wiretaps can only be issued by a federal district judge and can only be issued to FBI agents.

All of this monitoring is useless, however, without qualified people to interpret the information it generates. What is being said or written in these communications? In many cases, the people under suspicion are not communicating in English or even in standard dialects taught in universities or used in official speech. Agents looking for meaning in these communications must be able to pick up on slang, idioms, and cultural references. The intelligence agencies admit they are woefully undermanned in this area. The FBI, for instance, has been searching for more agents who are proficient in Arabic -- as of 2003, there were still fewer than 21.

Biometrics
Biometrics is a technology used to analyze and quantify a person's physical features. The objective is to identify and intercept people of suspicion before they enter the country to activate local cells, or catch them as they try to enter targets such as large buildings or nuclear power plants. A notable biometrics effort was launched in January 2004, when the U.S. implemented US-VISIT, which requires foreign visitors to be electronically fingerprinted and photographed when they enter the country.

Retinal scans, once used only at high-security locations, are becoming more common. The Japanese already use them at ATM machines, and a handful of institutions in the U.S. are testing their usefulness. The scans are very accurate, with almost a zero percent false rate, but the scanners are expensive and require perfect alignment with the eye. (As well as a scan of the person's retina on record -- very problematic for tracking suspected terrorists). Moreover, the retinal vein pattern also changes as a person ages.


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