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The Thing (wikipedia.org)
599 points by cos2pi on June 12, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 104 comments

Soviets attempted to repeat this in the 80s when passive eavesdropping devices were embedded into concrete slabs and columns used in a construction of new US embassy and supplied by local contractors [1].

From what I remember the case lingered well into Perestroika period when complete documentation on this project was passed to the Americans as a gesture of "goodwill and friendship", presumably in exchange for chicken leg imports (aka "Bush legs") and other Western luxuries.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/1988/11/15/world/the-bugged-embassy-...

Once on an international flight, I overheard some construction workers describe how the US government must fly in US citizenship-holding personnel and US sourced materials in construction of certain foreign projects for security reasons. Does anyone know more about this?

I worked on a software project that was targeted at the federal government and required all programmers to be US citizens. It didn’t require us to have special security training or anything, though; and there was a different project that required programmers to leave their cell phones in lockers during the day.

I’m convinced that the government doesn’t believe citizens are any more loyal or hard to bribe than other people, but insisting on citizenship would make it easier to charge us with particular crimes if the need arose.

If you're a US citizen, the US government already knows enough about you from just your regular stream of activity that makes its way to them—your taxes, any times you've been arrested, etc. So—even disregarding stuff like Prism—they already have a baseline estimate for how trustworthy you are, without needing to do a background check. (Also, they can rely on other partial background checks you've passed in the past, if they have access to them. If you've ever worked with children, or gotten a NEXUS card, they already have all the information they need to determine whether you can work a government job.)

The same cannot be said of foreign citizens (even ones who are permanent residents); to the government's eyes, they're "opaque"—and even background checks run on them would only turn up what their homeland wants the US to turn up. (A background check that could turn up more, wouldn't really be a "background check" any more, but rather espionage, since they'd need to bypass the "public API" of the other government.)

Not really, otherwise they wouldn't bother doing background checks for security clearances. Some of them are extensive. They interview your friends.

A security clearance requires that the government know more about you than just the background-level life events of yours that they passively subscribe to.

All they need to know for a plain-old no-clearance public-servant position is that you're not beholden to a foreign power (e.g. part of a foreign gang, or in debt to a major foreign corporation.)

There's an easy (though imperfect) heuristic for determining whether you're potentially beholden to a foreign power, from the data they already have: the addresses you've lived at, your job history, and your arrest record. Just join that set to the set of organizations they're tracking as catspaws for foreign powers [and their active locations], count the joined rows, and you have a log-probability that you've ever had the opportunity to interact with someone who might have had cause to convince you to work for a foreign power.

This sounds too simplistic. There are other factors, like large debts (domestic, foreign, or otherwise), extra-marital affairs, etc. that could make someone easy to turn in the future.

At this point I think it depends on what type of security clearance you're talking about now. The above sounds more like checks done for a CIA analyst than for a embassy drywall contractor...

I didn’t work for the government directly, and I don’t want to sound like I was doing anything covert or especially difficult. Basically, the company I worked for knew the government was one of its biggest customers with some unusual requirements compared to other customers (not “we need to spy on people,” but more like FedRAMP), and we helped other teams implement those feature requests.

But it was the federal government that insisted that we be US citizens. As far as I know, they didn’t require us to pass any special background check. And they didn’t require us to have any special training. But we absolutely had to be citizens (not just “legally able to work in the country”).

It's interesting how broad and disjoint the US Federal government is. I'm a Federal contractor and while many of my coworkers are not US citizens, the government does do a quite thorough (non-clearance) investigation on all of us that involves filling out a rather long form, providing past addresses and contacts for each of those addresses, etc. AFAIK they don't do in person interviews for non-clearance background investigations, but they do send out questionnaires by mail to all of the people you list on the form.

>I’m convinced that the government doesn’t believe citizens are any more loyal or hard to bribe than other people, but insisting on citizenship would make it easier to charge us with particular crimes if the need arose

Hm.. I definitely feel it's easier to mitigate some risk by using US citizens. One of the goals is to limit possibility of foreign interference via these citizens. By using your own people, you can track their interactions with foreign entities via their trips outside of the US and their self documented contacts with foreign nationals. It'd be a lot harder to track these things when you hire someone from a different country because you're not going to have as meticulous records and all their friends and family are liable to be foreign nationals.

My non-citizen wife is a web designer for a minor department at the Smithsonian. They had to employ her through the non-profit, non-governmental side because the government side wouldn’t employ a non-citizen.

>I’m convinced that the government doesn’t believe citizens are any more loyal or hard to bribe than other people

Seriously? While they have to plan for an inside threat, do you really think that they don't view their own citizens as being more reliable than foreign nationals?

You’re not looking at a random subset but at a self selected group. It’s entirely likely they consider “10 US born volunteers” as much a threat as “10 global volunteers”.

If you haven’t watched the Americans, I recommend you do. Often, handlers would extract information from citizens without them even knowing they did anything wrong. I can imagine a lot of more modern day scenarios playing out with this same dynamic.

Originally I thought the requirement that we be citizens was naïve because, whether the odds were better or worse, there obviously have been cases where US citizens showed no loyalty to the country. But further thought convinced me that, assuming they get physical custody of the culprit, it’s much easier to charge citizens with crimes than foreign nationals, and it’s generally easier to get other countries to cooperate to turn over physical custody of a US citizen than foreign nationals.

Obviously, there are exceptions to this. The US has a much better chance of getting Assange than Snowden right now. But I believe, in general, the requirement isn’t about avoiding a security breach, but instead about punishing the culprits after the breach is discovered.

>I’m convinced that the government doesn’t believe citizens are any more loyal or hard to bribe than other people, but insisting on citizenship would make it easier to charge us with particular crimes if the need arose.

It is not always about the security side. There are certain requirements to employ US citizens based on the funding source. The charitable reasoning is ensuring the program can continue to run even if are at war.

Requiring U.S. citizens denies adversaries the ability to use their own without first having to put them through immigration and naturalization in the U.S. That's not nothing. Sure, adversaries can also recruit Americans, but that's harder than recruiting their own citizens.

Does it prevent espionage by Americans? No. But it does make espionage by foreign adversaries at least a bit harder.

I'd say requiring own citizens also makes it possible to play eenie meenie among a pool of candidates, to minimize the chance of spies slipping in.

They leave cellphones in lockers because they have cameras. There are corporations that have similar places. I’m sure Apple doesn’t allow cellphones in certain rooms with prototypes.

Audio recording and transmission can also be a threat.

See https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensitive_Compartmented_Info...

(Just FYI I don't know if I could put a source / article on this, but this information was information that Robert Hanssen allegedly leaked to the Russians [Aldrich Ames also leaked similar things and a lot of the same HUMINT sources]. I initially read this in a Robert Hanssen non-fic book a while ago)

Apparently, during the construction of the embassy in (edit: Moscow) -East Berlin-, the construction company (surely at the direction of the KGB / GRU) placed passive bugs in the concrete (they only transmit when blasted with microwaves at the right frequency and would avoid counter-intel sweeps unless active). They built the buildings almost pre-fab style, laying the concrete out then assembiling it. It's then when the bugs were placed.

The west eventually learned about this, if I recall correctly, it was from a Russian defector by the codename of Mother.

It was called Operation Top Hat (that's where i'd start googiling). The US knew the embassy in (edit: Moscow) -East Berlin- was bugged on the first 3 floors by the Russians as well as having secret hollow support columns with clandestine access to the building. The decision was made to just not use the first 3 floors of the embassy for classified discussion. The remaining floors were built by Americans and undoubtedly under FBI/OGA watch.

IIRC there was also a network of tunnels leading from the embassy in West Berlin to under the wall to listening posts.

Edit: my memory is shot apparently. It was in Moscow, not Berlin. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/private-tour-cias-inc... https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1991-07-29-mn-177-st...

I think i screwed up another thing Hanssen revealed and that was a tunnel from West Berlin to East Berlin and under the Soviet embassy.

I have heard that the US embassy in Canberra, Australia is made entirely out of US materials that were shipped there specifically, as well as the first meter or so of topsoil for the whole complex. Unsure if true, but wouldn't surprise me.

There is a famous Soviet joke about it.

Question to Armenian Radio:

- What is American embassy built from?

- Micro-concrete.

- What's Micro-concrete?

- 10% concrete, 90% microphones

My memory might be fuzzy but I believe Kevin Paulson had Intel on the embassy bugs. It was years ago when I read it but I kind of assumed that played a role in a shorter prison sentence.

If you are a high ranking government official and receive a gift that you want to keep in your office, then make a replica, and put that on your wall instead.

And lose the opportunity to do a counter-intelligence move on your part? No way. Better analyze the shit of those "gifts", hope they are bugged and then use them to feed false information while you keep your real intelligence room free of anything.

Yep. Intelligence is all about keeping the other side in the dark while looking like you’re in the dark.

It's like the old "never click on a link in an unsolicited email" rule.

You can always re-gift.

The creator is interesting:


And his most famous creation:


There's a great 80-minute documentary about Theremin – I heartily recommend it. The highlight is a very trippy interview with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys -- the interview really has to be seen to be believed:


Looks like the documentary is no longer on Netflix, but it is on Amazon Prime streaming. Rotten Tomatoes for the movie:


And if you are interested in buying a Theremin:


Interesting? Wikipedia article doesn't even get close. There are various accounts of his life and achievements, memoirs of witnesses, people who knew him in various contexts, the descendants/family, records of his own recollections -- all available on Internet. Unfortunately, most of it is in Russian. Reading it gives you that messy, undefinable feeling of experiencing a genius.

> Unfortunately, most of it is in Russian.

You can still post the links that are most interesting to you, please, the google translate service is quite usable.

See, for example, https://statehistory.ru/1038/Lev-Termen/

More links are at the bottom.

There are a surprising number of popular songs which have actually used the theremin. Perhaps the most recognizable is "Good Vibrations" by the Beach Boys. You can hear the theremin especially clearly in the background of the first chorus.


Common mistake. Good vibrations did not actually use a theremin. It was a ribbon controller type instrument that was designed to mimic the sound. Theremins are hard. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electro-Theremin

Somewhat fittingly, the Electro-Theremin is seen being played at 4:20 in the Brian Wilson interview that gibspaulding posted:


In terms of actual Theremin music, here's Clara Rockmore's Nocturne In C# Minor [1975]: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ghWdgcYIcSk

Theremin playing a theremin https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5qf9O6c20o

I'm currently reading "Spycatcher" by Peter Wright, I would recommend if you're interested in topics like this.

It is fascinating. People often disregard the book because its main thesis, the identity of a mole within MI5, appears to be misguided in light of post-Cold War knowledge. But there's more to the book than Wright's speculations -- it's his direct experiences with things like analyzing The Thing that make the book worth reading.

Also, in the same vein, I highly recommend R.V. Jones' 'Most Secret War' on his experience as Chief Boffin in the UK during WWII.

Chapter after chapter devoted to figuring out what the Germans were up to on the technology front, then one-upping them. Lots of engineering porn.

"The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: Churchill's Mavericks" by Giles Milton describes a lot of the equipment that SOE developed - e.g. the original limpet mine depending on condoms and boiled sweets and, of course, developed in someone's shed and tested at the local swimming pool.

Seconded. It really emphasises how far things have come in a relatively short time, with the technology not so long ago being very basic compared to what we read about from, for example, Snowden.

Also checkout the Billion Dollar Spy.

Lev Termen is a legend. His work and inventions (as a young engineer; under Ioffe; in prison, etc) shows a huge breadth. Such coupling of talent in physics and engineering has always been rare.

For a moment I was so excited. I thought my favorite road trip oddity made it to HN.


I always wonder why open source mass surveillance isn't in fuller swing. Imagine a Kickstarter for $2 credit card-sized disposable listening devices which can mesh network for autocorrelated quality-enhancing signal reconstruction and 3d localization. They could be hidden behind objects and hard to detect. With a cellularly connected golf ball-sized gateway, they could egress data or receive updates. At this price point, there would be even less harbor from clandestine listening.

Why bother with dedicated hardware when most adults carry around a general-purpose device with a microphone, an internet connection, and some vulnerable software that can do the work for you?

More entry vectors means more coverage, and physical security is often nonexistent while phones come with at least base levels of protection and isolation.

That's the difference between then and now. Then you had to go to all this effort just to surveil an American ambassador. Now the President of the United States carries a consumer-grade device made in China and running an ancient version of Android around in his pocket.

My paranoid fantasy is that this was already built into smoke detectors decades ago. Required by building codes to be in every room, with a guaranteed power supply, and small radioactive detector component that probably has a really small and controlled supply chain.

there was a post on here a few months ago detailing something very similar, but for video, not audio. I can't recall the name unfortunately.


found it


Because wifi is ubiquitous and everyone has an old cell phone laying around. If you need something the size of a credit card, who the hell are you? Who are you spying on that notices a pocket sized device hidden in a room? You can probably afford to build your own hardware.

Almost everyone that needs to bug a room is either 1. Catching their partner in an act of infidelity or 2. A professional with money to spend, and isn't spying on a nation state.

Maybe it is?

"Here's the thing -- we add a few 'features' and then we can sell it to them."

"Don't be an idiot. There's no way millions of people are going to PAY us to put an internet connected listening device in their homes..."

Maybe someday the Soviet side of things will be declassified, and we can read the technical account from that end. Would be interesting.

There seem to be some technical unknowns in the article. I don’t think you can get FM back from the passive cavity, just AM, unless you can pump the cavity with feedback. Same goes for re-radiating at a harmonic. Maybe if the Q of the cavity were super high. Again, would be interesting to see the technical details of the receiving equipment.

There is nothing unknown in the article. You can do this at home as well. Is very well explained how it works. For start I would suggest you get technical of how Yagi antennas work, it's the same principle coupled with cavity resonator + membrane movement used in a microphone. In the end you get your high frequency beamed back modulated by the sound. And is not AM modulation, is FM modulation. But what article indeed lacks is the power required to get the device working properly. In my experience I would guess at least 1KW would've been beamed directly at the embassy walls when Soviets were doing their surveillance using this device.

Ha ha, I know how a Yagi works; 25 years of RF/Microwave circuit and antenna design. I don't see how you are going to get FM modulation out of this thing. This is akin to passing a CW tone through a filter at it's cutoff, then modulating the filter response. You get AM sidebands as the passband varies with modulation. The frequency does not change.

In order to get FM modulation from a passive resonator, the decay time of that resonator has to be much longer than the modulation; i.e. the resonator Q has to be very high, much narrower bandwidth than the modulation.

A back of the envelope calculation, for 3 kHz audio bandwidth, and a 300 MHz resonator, that sets the unloaded Q=100E3, which you can't get even close with a passive resonator, short of a superconductor. Not to mention the loaded Q from the monopole radiation is going to lower it even more.

You can get FM modulation out of an oscillator because the feedback is generating a negative resistance to compensate for the resonator resistance; the active circuit is a Q multiplier, getting you that massive Q.

The interrogator would have to set up not only a standing wave, but provide coherent feedback. Sort of a stand-off oscillator. Even if you had low-level FM modulation, it's still going to have the spectrum of DSB AM as the Bessel components are pretty far down.

Maybe it is doing that stand-off oscillator, but my hunch is the receiver is a coherent AM demodulator. You have the carrier available , so might as well use it.

I'm finding it hard to imagine no one noticed an intermittent 1kW at 330MHz from somewhere close.

Well, the article does say a radio-amateur stumbled upon it and alerted the embassy. So in the end someone did. Since Soviets did the surveillance on key moments, and not continuous, that's what enabled for device to remain undetected for so long

I think it stills classified because it stills being in use.

This wouldn't surprise me -- some stuff, even if it's older, is still in use because it works well. Numbers stations[0] are still a thing because they're (relatively) cheap to set up, reliable, and virtually impossible to trace the source.

The great old engineering mantra: 'If it works, don't change it'.

You forgot to link your citation.

I'm not ascagnel_, but the Wikipedia page covers the topic pretty well: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Numbers_station

da comrade, waiting for the great soviet empire to rise up again

My guess is the excitation power is broadband, which explains the unusually high power required.

Smooth white noise with a spectrum 50 KHz wide centered on the theoretical center of the resonator, then the 3rd harmonic can rebroacast a resonant tiny high Q slice of up to 150 KHz deviation FM as the microphone diaphragm wiggles with sound.

Imagine a transmitter design where you make a very powerful white noise signal, then filter out a little bit of some tuned frequency and pass that narrow sliver out the antenna. A historical example of this transmitter topology would be old fashioned spark gap transmitter generating noise from DC to daylight as they used to say, then couple it to a resonant antenna. "The Thing" is merely a much more elaborate and refined variation on the idea.

See my response above about the FM modulation; I don't think it will work like that; it would be AM. Assuming the resonator diaphragm is linear and small signal (WRT to the sound pressure), you won't get a radiated carrier 2nd harmonic. A cavity resonator (2nd order) would produce a 2nd harmonic in AM audio as the carrier rides that resonator response.

If the diaphragm goes non-linear (say from high sound pressure), then perhaps you'd get harmonics and maybe an f/2 response. At this point it's acting like a parametric amplifier, with your carrier frequency and pump frequency. Parametric amps need a strongly non-linear reactance, hence pumping a varactor diode with a strong signal.

The receiving equipment is a standard CW illuminator, see compatible model here:


First stumpled upon this because it's mentioned in the slides of https://idlewords.com/talks/our_comrade_the_electron.htm

I wonder if there are any uses for mechanically modulated retroreflectors today. NASA is investigating fully mechanical rovers for Venus because semiconductors do not work very well at Venusian temperatures while mechanical devices do[0]. To get data back from a fully mechanical device they propose to use retroreflectors. Although the bandwidth they can achieve with their approaches, using semaphore messaging with retroreflectors and looking at the doppler shift provided by spinning disks, is low. Perhaps by using a device like the thing they could transmit data at acoustic rates. I am also curious if there are more down to earth applications for devices like the thing other than espionage. [0]https://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/201700...

It seems like with recent meta-material advances, you could create an object that was a hidden bug, without any hidden parts. Like if you tuned one of those metal concentric ring windchimes just right, it could modulate a radio signal based on acoustic vibrations.

I'm guessing the hinge was added for the museum display right?

The pictures are of a replica.

You are right. This caption isn't shown unless you click on the image.

"Open view of a replica of a bugged US great seal on display at the National Cryptologic Museum in 2005."

The description of the operation of this thing always seems incomplete. From the Wikipedia article:

>The length of the antenna and the dimensions of the cavity were engineered in order to make the re-broadcast signal a higher harmonic of the illuminating frequency.

That wouldn't actually work by itself. There would have to be some sort of non-linear element to cause the harmonics. Chances are there was something like a varactor in there. The original technical description probably omitted critical details because spooks are like that...

It isn't hard to imagine that the recent occurrence of mysterious illnesses at US and Canadian embassies (news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17891427) may be related to this. Perhaps they are activating or experimenting with some new type of device. Given that the Theremin type of device confounded detection for years we probably won't actually know for a while.

Yeah... theramin's bug. This is a great story! What a brilliant example of passively powered electronics from 75 years ago. Now it's all the rage to build this king of functionality into passive sensors, etc.

> The device, a passive cavity resonator, became active only when a radio signal of the correct frequency was sent to the device from an external transmitter.

Super interesting, especially given this was early 1940s.

How far can the receiver be from the thing to still get a good signal?

Are there any good books on Communist science and innovations?

"Much has been written in the West on the history of the Soviet space program but few Westerners have read direct first-hand accounts of the men and women who were behind the many Russian accomplishments in exploring space. The memoirs of Academician Boris Chertok, translated from the original Russian, fills that gap."


Science, Philosophy, and Human Behavior in the Soviet Union by Loren Graham is pretty good. It is more on the science side than talking about technological innovations, I'm not aware of any books in English focusing on that (supposedly there are some in Russian).

Most of the books on this topic seem to be more about the "communism is evil" angle than actually talking about the science.

and now..just imagine what China has been listening to on all the cells sent out from their factories into our homes ;-) Privacy & Secrets are soo 2000.

Can't be worse than all the software manufactured in the US.

I think it's entirely sensible in this day and age to avoid electronic products from China, Russia or the US.

Back to Nokia, I guess.

Those are manufactured by Foxconn and running software by Google.

>running software by Google

My 1280 surely doesn't.


(I would kill for another silver Nokia E61, but with modern CPU, running mainline Linux, with an unlocked bootloader, and isolated baseband, preferably with open device firmware.)

How did it power itself for so many years to transmit?

That’s the beauty of it - it works by passively modulating incoming radio frequencies, so it has no power supply. The power comes solely from the incoming radio energy.

Read the article. It's explained there.

Three of the four links here, have no discussion. One has hardly any. Posting interesting topics which have not received much prior discussion is encouraged here.

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12884393 is a better past discussion with 29 comments.

I didn't know it too. How do we define interesting though, given three of the four times it garnered no interest (do we keep on posting until it does)? I'm not sure if GP deserves downvotes for pointing them out at the least.

So a genuine question downvoted too? People are so reasonable here :).

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