SALT LAKE CITY — The agent who heads up the counter-intelligence unit for the FBI Salt Lake City Division says Russia and China still very much continue to pose a threat to national security and to businesses, even in Utah.
“I think it was a little bit easier, growing up, to understand that there were countries that were adversarial toward us, because they were more openly adversarial,” Barron says. “What we’re seeing now, though, is — I think Russia’s trying to project a picture of being a kinder, gentler Russia, but really, from where I sit and from what I see, it’s just kind of the same old thing.”
For example, Barron says, his unit is on the lookout for signs that a foreign government is stealing trade secrets from the United States.
“We estimate hundreds of billions of dollars every year are being stolen by foreign adversaries from our businesses,” Barron says. “It really does a lot of damage to our country when our businesses are priced out of the market because their stuff has been stolen by a foreign competitor.”
For example, Barron referenced a case of stolen intellectual property: hybrid corn seeds. For American companies, this represented years worth of development as well as the cost of that development. In that case, the Chinese national who was ultimately sentenced was sending seeds from Iowa back to China.
Corn seeds may not exactly sound like the stuff of James Bond, but Barron says there are plenty of other examples of espionage happening right here in the U.S.
“The ghost stories case was a case of illegals, or NOCs (non-official covers) that had come here – people that were not officially declared as being any type of Russian diplomats or in any way affiliated with the Russian government,” Barron says.
In that case, in a story that sounds like it came straight out of the FX spy drama “The Americans,” agents of the Russian government had come here, in some cases under false identities, posing as ordinary residents, but in reality working to build relationships that would, they hoped, influence policy in a way that benefitted Russia.
Among other techniques, in the ghost stories case, the spies were using something called steganography.
“Basically that involves embedding a message inside a digital photograph,” Barron explains. “If you can find a sneaky way to embed information in those pictures, you can go on about your life and it just looks like you’re just sending pictures to your friend, and there’s nothing more to see here so move along.”
The ghost stories defendants also made use of more traditional “dead drops.”
“A dead drop, of course, is a place where you bury something: information that you want to hand off between a recruit and a spy. If you’re a spy, it’s generally a bad thing for you to be seen with the person that you’ve recruited to give you information,” Barron says. “So you use a dead drop. You pre-arrange a location to leave things so that you never have to be seen together.”
In the ghost stories case, Barron says it was years between the time that one person left money and information at a dead drop and the other person came to retrieve it.
“That’s a long time to sit and watch a spot where you think something’s going to happen, and that’s one of the daunting tasks with catching spies,” he says. “It sounds really cool and it gets glamorized in Hollywood and things like that, but in actuality, it takes a long time, and it can be very boring.”
Barron says much like any other type of crime, often the FBI learns about spy activity because someone spots something that looks out of place — a co-worker spending too much time at work at odd hours, for example, might just be really dedicated to their job. But they could also be working at odd times to share information with a foreign adversary when they won’t be interrupted.
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