Spies in One’s Samovar (or a Storm in a Teapot)

Round here, we’re mostly concerned with the malicious and programming kinds of bug. But as an avid watcher of Spooks*,  I couldn’t resist sharing with you an item in the Telegraph about a samovar presented to the British Royal Family about twenty years ago. Apparently, after a surveillance sweep of the Queen’s estate at Balmoral, the samovar was identified as a possible security risk.

My initial interest in this story was in how tenuous it all is (curiously reminiscent of the Iraqi Printer Virus story (hoax, even) of 1992). There’s no confirmation that the samovar actually was bugged. There’s an allusion to arcane Eastern bloc wiring, but I doubt if this is meant as an admission that Russian bugging technology is so good that after 20 years we still can’t identify it. It appears that the samovar may have been a present from a Russian aerobatic team. Does this mean the Russian airforce? Better, I suppose, than a parcel coming labelled “With love from Mikhail and your admirers at the KGB”.  Were we so optimistic in those heady days of glasnost and perestroika that we lost interest in security?

But then I started to think about it in the context of a story in the LA Times which links the Agent.BTZ malware, attacks on military systems in Iraq and Afghanistan and the banning of flash drives, and allegations of Russian involvement in electronic attacks on Estonia and Georgia. I don’t have the sources to give you reliable information about all these issues (and I couldn’t blog about them publicly if I did). One thing is clear, though: while I’m not hearing the words “Cold War” much at the moment, there are chilly winds blowing across the Urals these days.

*Spooks, by the way, is a television programme broadcast in the UK in which members of the security services with intense emotional problems wander around London saving the world from terrorists and our own government. I’m a little worried about their ability to cope though: they keep mistaking the Freemason’s Hall in Queen Street for Thames House, the home of what we used to call MI5. But it’s a perfect encapsulation of the spirit of terrorist-inspired paranoia that has dominated this decade, and the last time I saw it (I haven’t been home much recently), also had a gloomy Russian storyline running .

David Harley 
Director of Malware Intelligence 

Author David Harley, ESET

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