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Advice from the CIA: Keep your eye on your laptop…

John Mullen, a longtime senior operations officer with the CIA, caught the attention of his audience at the SINET Innovation Summit in New York City on August 6 as he matter-of-factly recited the ways in which foreign intelligence services routinely steal industrial secrets and intellectual property from naïve traveling U.S. business people visiting their countries.

Mullen noted that advanced technologies have certainly helped these foreign intelligence services to steal valuable information from Americans (and other visiting travelers) but that their true advantage was what he dubbed “human frailty.” The naïve willingness of an ill-informed visitor to allow himself to be physically separated from his laptop, to willingly accept a computer file from his host, or to avail himself of computer services in the local market are the true Achilles Heels, Mullen suggested.

“Human frailty is often the weakest link in the chain,” he declared.

Mullen emphasized that unlike the U.S. Government, many foreign governments -- he declined to name them -- have identified as part of their national economic strategy a concerted effort to steal whatever intellectual property they can lay their hands on. To that end, these assertive governments “will manipulate your relationships and your friendships” to achieve their goals, he advised.

“When you’re on their turf,” said Mullen, “they own you.”

He said some foreign governments -- as well as some foreign businesses, which work extremely closely with their own governments -- will use mobile technologies to keep you under constant surveillance. “They’ll hot mic your cell phone,” said Mullen, “and they’ll track your movements.”

Some governments are not above blackmail to achieve their goals, he added. He told the group of cybersecurity professionals who gathered for a one-day conclave at Columbia University about one such instance he recalled. An employee of a U.S. software company was traveling on business overseas when he was seduced by a “femme fatale,” working for a foreign intelligence service. The U.S. traveler was filmed during his exploits and later blackmailed into sharing some of his proprietary information, for fear that the incriminating film would otherwise be made public.

Of course, said Mullen, people are still naively clicking on attachments to incoming email messages (some of which contain dangerous malware), and still beginning online relationships with people they’ve never met face-to-face. “Intelligence services don’t have to meet people to recruit them,” he warned. “They can meet them online.”

Mullen suggested that most of these techniques -- and more -- are practiced by many of the more-aggressive foreign governments. How does he know? Because he has practiced some of the same data gathering techniques himself over the years…on behalf of Uncle Sam.  


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