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Undercover Agents Target Citizen Lab (nytimes.com)
321 points by jbegley 84 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 61 comments



From the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: 'Revealed: Israel's Cyber-spy Industry Helps World Dictators Hunt Dissidents and Gays'

"Within a few years, the Israeli espionage industry has become the spearhead of the global commerce in surveillance tools and communications interception. Today, every self-respecting governmental agency that has no respect for the privacy of its citizens, is equipped with spy capabilities created in Herzliya Pituah."

https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium.MAGAZINE-israel...


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> There will always be people eager to point out the race of people who do wrong, when those people are Jewish.

What was pointed here was an country government's agency, not ethnicity. I see nothing wrong in including that information and in, in fact, in favor of it.

This way, it's possible to have a grasp of what govts. are doing what, even though not much.


this is such a ridiculous perspective.

if it were American companies doing this, people wouldn't question the headline.

the truth is, nationality matters. not all countries would permit a private intelligence sector to exist like this, or perform these types of services. understanding that the israeli government permits this behavior helps contextualize their complicity.


Additionally:

1. “Jewish” is not a race, it's a religion.

2. How do we know, and what does it matter, how religious those people are?


Jewish is an ethnicity that encompasses the national and cultuarl affiliation of its adherants in a similar way that a person might identify as Kurdish, and it is additionally a term used to describe the religion of the Jewish people. You can say Muslim is not an ethnicity (Persian and Arab are). But that's not an accurate thing to say about the Jews.


Like many things in life, there is a lot more nuance once you dive past the surface. There are in fact numerous jewish ethnicities, it's not one homogeneous group. Some of those jewish ethnicities, such as the Beta Israel (aka Ethiopian Jews) have been discriminated against by the rest. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racism_in_Israel#Depo_Provera_...

Given the discrimination the Beta Israel have faced; particularly the sterilization controversy; it's important to recognize the ethnic diversity of the jewish community, lest some parts of it be forgotten and erased.


> "I know what I'm doing," Lambert said, as he put his files — and his pen — into a bag. Then he stood up, bumped into a chair and walked off, saying "Ciao" and waving his hand, before returning because he had neglected to pay the bill.

> As he paced around the restaurant waiting for the check, Lambert refused to answer questions about who he worked for or why no trace of his firm could be found.

My god. This would be perfect comedy if wasn't so concerning that it happened at all.


Reminds me of the time the Silicon Valley writers met with the head of GoogleX: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/how-silicon-v...

> Teller ended the meeting by standing up in a huff, but his attempt at a dramatic exit was marred by the fact that he was wearing Rollerblades. He wobbled to the door in silence. “Then there was this awkward moment of him fumbling with his I.D. badge, trying to get the door to open,” Kemper said. “It felt like it lasted an hour. We were all trying not to laugh. Even while it was happening, I knew we were all thinking the same thing: Can we use this?” In the end, the joke was deemed “too hacky to use on the show.”


> Like FlameTech, CPW-Consulting was a fiction. Searches of Orbis and the French commercial court registry Infogreffe turned up no trace of the supposedly Paris-based company or indeed of any Paris-based company bearing the acronym CPW. And when the AP visited CPW's alleged office there was no evidence of the company; the address was home to a mainly residential apartment building. Residents and the building's caretaker said they had never heard of the firm.

This obviously doesn't mean anything, but the IPs associated with cpw-consulting.com are riddled with malware.

https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/5684892-Gmail-Kite-A...

http://archive.is/K54Ax

https://www.virustotal.com/#/domain/cpw-consulting.com

https://www.virustotal.com/#/ip-address/66.111.4.54 https://www.virustotal.com/#/ip-address/209.99.40.222 https://www.virustotal.com/#/ip-address/66.111.4.53


One interesting thing to point out is that all of Canada is a single-party consent jurisdiction for recording of conversations. You do not have to notify the other party.

CBC's investigative journalists have used this extensively, in all sorts of scam/fraud/corruption investigations, if you watch the past twenty years of output from The Fifth Estate and other reputable documentary series.

The Citizen Lab researchers would be smart to bring pocket sized recording devices with them to meet with these sketchy characters, and then publish the results.


This isn't quiet as clear cut as you're saying. There are instances where you cannot record conversations. For example, in the bedroom or other places where someone has a reasonable expectation of privacy like a therapist's office.

But the general thrust of what you're saying is true. Phone calls, and interviews or conversations in public can be.


States and large companies routinely try to understand who is behind journalistic endeavors, to influence them, and to counter other state's influence over them. This stuff is never going away, and it is very likely to get worse and more complex.

Influence and counter-influence operations: https://www.rand.org/topics/information-operations.html



Citizen Lab are an outstanding bunch of people, really love the work that they do.

A pity, though not surprising that they are being targeted this way. This sort of thing happens all the time with many of the NGOs we provide security for. Many of the infiltration attempts are much more sophisticated though, with far wider efforts to build better cover.


If you’d like to support Citizen Lab you can donate here:

https://donate.utoronto.ca/give/show/84


This appears to be an AP news story, so here's a link:

https://www.apnews.com/9f31fa2aa72946c694555a5074fc9f42

In addition to presumably being a more direct / original source, this doesn't appear to have a paywall like the NY Times site.


Thanks! I routinely avoid articles that I'm interested in, because of the NYT paywall and instead have to ration out my views for the most intriguing stories.


They messed with shady people's livelyhood and with even worse people...like secret services from all corrupt countries that used that spyware. Dangerous. But brave.

No matter what we think, for them its perfectly reasonable to get even and to protect their thing. Watch our for drugs slipped in your car or whatever. Setting you up is extremely easy


This all started with what I assume was a murder, so they’re well aware of the risks.


>"Work drama? Tell me, I like drama!" Lambert said at one point

Who goes to a meeting with a stranger and spills the beans on "work drama"?


Probably a lot of people would talk a bit about it, if they became comfortable with someone and let their guard down.


Depends on nature of the drama I suppose. In complex corporate environments, I tend to brief new team members on some of the "work drama" background their first week, to equip them to handle, process, and react appropriately.


How do you do that without compromising yourself politically?


Good question; two parts I think: 1. I try to present the situation as neutrally/objectively as possible (inasmuch as any one of us can do so of course:). At the very least, present both aspects of the conflict or situation; 99% of the time, disagreements and politics are not because people are evil, stupid, or actively trying to sabotage - underneath it are differing goals and priorities which create competing or conflicting situations. By presenting the potential underlying differing goals and perspectives, I can prepare those coming in, without necessarily discussing something I cannot/would not be prepared to face in the open.

2. At the end of the day, I need to trust people coming on my team :)


Thanks.


Someone with a grudge, I suppose. If you’re not happy with the company for which you work, you might be inclined to voice your dissatisfaction. All it takes is one person to slip up.


I guess from an "investigator" aspect it is wroth a shot but that has to be a long shot to ask at the first meeting when they've got no connection to the other person.

A lot of the questions seemed like really obvious "Hey can you give me a list of information that will allow me to manipulate you, and the people around you?"

Oddly awkward.


It might be more of an attempt to scare them than anything.


Many people see drama at work, and commiseration is a classic way to bond with strangers.


Why would an agent be afraid of dine & dash?


It sounds like that would be a very trivial way to reveal their identity. Get locked up for something minor but now the agent has to go through booking and post bail. I don't think the local police would look too kindly on someone providing a false name either.


Because this is not the movies. Having a criminal record curtails your ability to travel.


Same reason (smart) drug smugglers obey the speed limit.


It will be very easy for Canadian officials to trace the person if they have:

1. Face

2. Assumption that the guy fled the country ASAP as soon a he was spooked


You're assuming the person isn't traveling on a totally false passport, Israeli intelligence has been caught in the past stealing identities of real new zealanders to obtain legitimate, issued by NZ government passports, for instance.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2004_Israel–New_Zealand_passpo...


> You're assuming the person isn't traveling on a totally false passport,

Face recognition, unless they passed the border at the only remaining paper only checkpoint in the country


The Russian intelligence offers traveling on fake passports involved in the recent Skripal poisoning case didn't care one whit about the UK's customs face recognition, or omnipresent camera systems, and they were up to something far more nefarious than this.


Ummm...the Russians are on a suicide mission of sort. Do this and stay in mother Russia for the rest of your life, if you don't get arrested. They have a powerful nation state behind them and one that does not extradite its citizens. Even if regime changes, its very unlikely that they will be surrendered due to bad precedent.


Intelligence agents are by far some of the most infamous people.


[flagged]


Is it Mossad? Is that because they may randomly kill me thinking I'm a terrorist when I'm just a waiter? I think I can count on US backwater police departments to do that too.

Look at these stars of intelligence:

> After dessert arrived, the AP reporters approached Lambert at his table and asked him why his company didn't seem to exist.

>

> He seemed to stiffen.

>

> "I know what I'm doing," Lambert said, as he put his files — and his pen — into a bag. Then he stood up, bumped into a chair and walked off, saying "Ciao" and waving his hand, before returning because he had neglected to pay the bill.

He knows what he's doing hahaha. It's like a scene from Burn After Reading.


Part of thinks thinks well, yeah, incompetence exists everywhere, but another part is wondering if this sort of thing isn't done intentionally to distract attention away from the actual operation and foster a false sense of security. If you are my enemy, it is to my advantage if you believe I am incompetent.


What "actual operation"? We have no reason to assume there was more going on than the crook feeling cornered.


[flagged]


Continuing to troll HN like this will get your main account banned as well. Please stop now.


[flagged]


If investigative journalism is an act of war against you, then you’re fighting on the wrong side.


Does it matter that it's the wrong side? It's an act of war nonetheless. Retribution usually follows.

Was dumping the DNC mail server to Wikileaks investigative journalism? Or an act of war?


Right, we get it. Never criticize Israel, or you’ll find yourself set up by spies using hidden cameras and shady aliases.


The sovereign entity I was referring to in this case was Saudi Arabia, but whatever.


Please troll somewhere else.


It isn't any more of an act of war than the actions of state actors who target civilians. These researchers are academic scholars. If the UofT's Citizen Lab is committing acts of war by researching how state sponsored malware is used to target civilians, those state actors are already engaging in war against those civilian actors.


Exposing cyberintrusions is "an act of war"?


Yes. Would you consider exposing spies in the field, leading to their capture, academic work? Or is more akin to an act of war?

You see this work as merely exposing cyberintrusions. However, for the powers in question, this constitutes harming or disabling strategic intelligence capabilities. At this point shit gets real.


Certainly not an act of war.

First of all it would be legal for Citizen Lab to do the exact same thing exposing abuses of the Canadian government. As a Canadian I would expect them to if they discovered the Canadian government doing the exact same thing. This is something protected by internationally and nationally (Canada) recognized rights of free speech, not a crime.

Second acts of wars are between countries, the concept doesn't even make sense here. Citizen lab is not a government.


I doubt they were spies, more likely private investigators. Maybe I am too naive here, but I don't think that spies, who had dedicated a long time of their life to training in acting and impersonation would act so amateurish. They would likely prepare quite some time for this very situation. If a spy acts in such a way that it endangers his/her identity so easily he/she would probably have been given a desk-job as analyst by then.

Sure it can always be that their vetting-process is shit -- but I doubt that a real intelligence agency would create such an easily falsifiable legend. From what I have read about the topic there are whole departments dedicated only to the task of building robust identities, companies and so on [these companies wouldn't only have existed on paper].

Retributions are also not very likely (at least in Canada). Anything that would attract the ire of the local or federal police and further endangers other operations in the country in question are very unlikely for such an insignificant target. Even at the height of the cold war keeping agents undercover was considered more important than conducting operations.


If a spy leaves his disguise in my trash can and I take it to the police the spy exposed themselves.

Taking steps to intimidate a citizen because your spy screwed up is an act of war, but not by the citizen.


So the people who posted research on stuxnet were engaging in an act of war? That waters down the phrase to the point of meaninglessness.


Everyone loves a good spy story but this one just misses a lot.

Creepy people with seemingly fragile LinkedIn profiles setup meetings to ask questions in fancy hotels and restaurants.

It could be something, it could be nothing. Either way the story doesn’t seem to provide much one way or another. Maybe it’s just me, not expecting James Bond but some evidence of something sinister would have made this more compelling


>It could be something, it could be nothing.

Multiple people collaborating in a campaign to collect information or compromising material on Citizen Lab seems like something (regardless of whether they are sophisticated or well funded)


I'm not sure what kind of sinister you're looking for. They're trying to get dirt on academic scholars, I'd call that sinister. Not only that but the specific questions, and the fact they got them into a room, is a warning.


Some evidence of something sinister would have the other side incompetent.

The problem with this sort of smoke and mirrors business is that it's borderline impossible to tell an appropriately-sophisticated adversary from paranoia.


You put what I was getting at far more eloquently. If there are bad guys up to no good then there needs to be more evidence to counteract the possibility of paranoia.


a stranger asking about workplace rivalries and drama suggests to me that they were looking to sow discord between the employees or identify one they could flip for dirt about the others. recording the meeting and asking weird leading questions seems to imply some kind of james o'keefe-style attempt to portray them in a negative light in the press. both together, by someone using a fabricated identity, leaves little ambiguity about ill intent imo.




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