Russian officials claimed Jan. 23 that British diplomats concealed state-of-the-art electronics in Moscow parks and other public grounds as a means of spying on the Russians. Although the scandal serves as a reminder that espionage remains an active part of the great game between Russia and the West, its longer-term consequences could be grave. With Russian intelligence services and their Western counterparts now on the outs over the revelation, keeping tabs on international terrorists will be that much harder. The devices at the center of the scandal are hollow fake rocks containing what the Russians say was data transfer equipment used to store and transmit classified information. What these devices really were used for and why the Russians revealed their existence now, however, might never be publicly known.
Based on their locations, the devices were probably not used to pick up conversations — unless the targets were known to consistently discuss business at certain outdoor locations. Instead, the devices probably are what the Russians say they are: high-tech versions of the "dead drop," in which sensitive information is left in a pre-arranged location by one operative to be picked up by another. In this case, the operative making the drop would not have to know the exact location of the device, but would need only to be told to go to a certain location and press the download button on a device made to look, for example, like an ordinary personal data assistant or cell phone. The receiving "case officer," then, would do the same: walk into the area and press the upload button. The information could be relayed via "microbursts" — short, intense transmissions containing a large amount of information. The short time required to receive the information would minimize the amount of time the operatives are exposed. By using this dead-drop system, both the sender and the recipient avoid looking suspicious by stopping to physically pick up the "package." The hidden transmitters in this case probably had a limited range so the signals would be difficult for electronic intelligence monitoring devices to pick up. The arrangement would make sense for an agent whose computer or Internet connection might be monitored, or one under physical surveillance who could not risk being seen dropping a computer disk or memory stick. Although the Cold War is over, spying continues unabated between the great powers. In fact, with less overt military activity such as troop deployments and exercises in Europe, spying has increased in importance as a means of gauging another country's strength. In addition, in an era of decreasing military budgets, espionage is an effective, relatively low-cost means to keep ahead of a potential adversary. For the cost of one tank or fighter aircraft, dozens of spies can be recruited and paid. For slightly more than $1 million — a fraction of the cost of a single MiG-25 fighter — Cold War-era spy John Walker turned over invaluable information about U.S. Navy codes to the Soviets for nearly two decades. Like most issues dealing with the nebulous world of espionage, there probably is more to the "rock" scandal than appears on the surface. The ploy could have been deliberately leaked to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), or the FSB could have known about it for a long time, and the Russians only revealed the information now for political leverage. As a result of the scandal, however, relations between Britain's foreign intelligence service MI6 and the FSB will be strained for a time — resulting in the near-cessation of cooperation and information-sharing between the Russians and the British. The United States also will be shut out of any information exchange, as the Russians consider MI6 to be an extension of the CIA. This lack of cooperation will extend to counterterrorism efforts, which could make life easier for militant groups operating in Russia and Western Europe.