Spy Tech

Spy Tech

Miguel Vilar

Spying is a profession as old as human history. Now spies have turned new technology into tricks of the trade.

When Ho Lee, renowned Chinese-American physicist, sits in solitary confinement in an Albuquerque, New Mexico prison. Last December, Lee was indicted for allegedly transferring data on the nation’s newest nuclear weapons to unsecured computers. The physicist, who has pleaded not guilty, is accused of being a spy for China.

Two months earlier, Melita Norwood, an 87-year-old English grandmother, confessed to a lifetime of passing top-secret information on British weapons development to Russian security agents. Yes, even grandmas practice espionage, or spying–a disturbing and dangerous business that is as old as civilization itself.

In 500 B.C., Chinese war strategist Sun Tzu described using espionage to “mystify the enemies with false reports, keeping them in total ignorance.” In 14th-century Venice, city leaders anxious to protect their power organized a secret service extending to every corner of the known world. By the time of the U.S. Civil War (1861-65), common spy practices included concealing tiny photos of military camps inside coins and toting miniature guns inside rings.

With the dawn of the cyber-age, a new generation of spies has added computer modems, satellite cameras, and even encoded messages in microscopic DNA to their spy gear. To find out more about top-secret spy tech, read on!


Spies who want to check out faraway military camps, say, should soon have a field day with the world’s first private spy satellite camera. Last September, Space Imaging Inc. in Thornton, Colorado, launched its IKONOS satellite that orbits 644 kilometers (400 miles) above Earth and snaps extraordinarily detailed high-resolution images: In a black-and-white photo of Washington, D.C.’s downtown Mall (right), you can count the cars in the parking lot of the Washington Monument! The satellite orbits Earth at a speed of 7.2 km (4.5 mi) per second and circles the globe 14 times a day.

Orbital espionage, maneuvering orbiting cameras to photograph any spot on Earth in detail, isn’t new. Twenty years ago, for example, U.S. intelligence relied on satellite imagery to expose South Africa’s secret plan to test nuclear weapons in the Kalahari Desert. But now for the first time, orbital espionage is available to the public, at prices ranging from $30 to $600 per square mile!

How does IKONOS work? The satellite aligns itself directly above numerical coordinates on a map that a ground controller specifies. The onboard camera snaps a photo and transmits it via radio waves to the Space Imaging central computer, which then produces a black-and-white image. So far, the camera operates only on cloudless days–10:30 a.m. is prime snap time. “We can see the Colosseum in Rome, Disney World in Florida, and even the Eiffel Tower in Paris,” says Linda Lidov, a Space Imaging company representative. The company will start selling images late this year. Of course it’s unlikely that spies will be casing out Disney World or the Eiffel Tower!


Lobsters scouring the ocean floor for prey may soon be mistaken for robots–or vice versa. The U.S. Navy plans to deploy robotic lobsters to sleuth out underwater mines! Credit goes to Joseph Ayers (at right, with his lobster bot), a marine biologist at Northeastern University Marine Science Center in Nahant, Mass. His “robolobsters” combine the underwater mobility of a marine invertebrate (animal without a backbone) with radar, or radio wave, technology capable of locating dangerous mines. Like an undercover spy, the robolobster mixes in with its living counterparts and moves undetected, Ayers explains.

Why design robots that imitate lobsters? “Lobsters are a proven solution to the problem of navigation, searching, and sensing,” Ayers says. His robolobster will search shallow seafloors equipped with mine-detecting sensors. Their mission: to discover old war mines that haven’t detonated but that could one day explode. On finding a mine, the robolobster beams radar to an onshore computer, which immediately pinpoints the mine’s exact location. A human mine squad then proceeds to discharge the mine. Scientists hope that eventually robolobsters will detonate mines themselves.


What better way to conceal a message than to shrink it until it’s virtually invisible? During World War II, German agents traded secret codes in the form of dots hidden within the period of a sentence. Now Carter Bancroft, a molecular biologist at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine, has concealed a message in a site hundreds of times smaller than a period–human DNA (hereditary material in cells that determine physical and personality traits)!

How did Bancroft do it? Each strand of human DNA contains just four chemical bases: adenine, thymine, cytosine, guanine (A, T, C, G). The four bases line up in countless ways to form more than 3 billion pairs in a single DNA strand. “Since DNA is itself a code, why not use its enormous complexity to hide a message?” says Bancroft.

In his lab, Bancroft took a human cell and rearranged a sequence of about 100 bases to embed a message in DNA. Three A’s in a row, for example, might mean “Hi!” The 100 bases should easily go undetected in a sequence of 3 billion pairs of A, T, C, and G. Bancroft then took other strands of DNA and mixed them together in a process of concealment called steganography, or hiding one thing among many similar things. Shades of “Where’s Waldo?” End result: an encoded message virtually impossible to detect or decode.

To test the success of his message, Bancroft mailed a letter to his own laboratory, hiding the encoded DNA in a period at the end of a sentence! On receiving the letter, Bancroft’s lab partner–who was told which DNA strand to search–used a microscope to find and decipher the message. Would a spy be able to crack the code?

“To decode our message you not only code-cracking skills but expert knowledge of biochemistry [science of chemicals in cells],” Bancroft says. Guess that leaves most spies out in the cold.

Card Trick

Card-playing spies may have more than a trick up their sleeve. How about a hidden map inside a card? These cards are made of glued paper layers. Soaking a card in water separates layers, enabling a spy to hide a map between them.

Watch It

Disguised in this Rolex watch is a $230,000 digital camera that snaps photos stores them as computer files. The lens is hidden behind the date window, and the camera shoots pics with a touch of the winder. In emergencies, pulling the winder erases all data.

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