Was it a Chinese spy or confused tourist?

Politico has an article from a former spy analyzing whether the “spy” they caught at Mar-a-lago (Trump’s Florida vacation spot) was actually a “spy”. I thought I’d add to it from a technical perspective about her malware, USB drives, phones, cash, and so on.

The part that has gotten the most press is that she had a USB drive with evil malware. We’ve belittled the Secret Service agents who infected themselves, and we’ve used this as the most important reason to suspect she was a spy.

But it’s nonsense.

It could be something significant, but we can’t know that based on the details that have been reported. What the Secret Service reported was that it “started installing software”. That’s a symptom of a USB device installing drivers, not malware. Common USB devices, such as WiFi adapters, Bluetooth adapters, microSD readers, and 2FA keys look identical to flash drives, and when inserted into a computer, cause Windows to install drivers.

Visual “installing files” is not a symptom of malware. When malware does its job right, there are no symptoms. It installs invisibly in the background. Thats the entire point of malware, that you don’t know it’s there. It’s not to say there would be no visible evidence. A popular way of hacking desktops with USB drives is by emulating a keyboard/mouse that quickly types commands, which will cause some visual artifacts on the screen. It’s just that “installing files” does not lend itself to malware as being the most likely explanation.

That it was “malware” instead of something normal is just the standard trope that anything unexplained is proof of hackers/viruses. We have no evidence it was actually malware, and the evidence we do have suggests something other than malware.

Lots of travelers carry wads of cash. I carry ten $100 bills with me, hidden in my luggage, for emergencies. I’ve been caught before when the credit card company fraud detection triggers in a foreign country leaving me with nothing. It’s very distressing, hence cash.

The Politico story mentioned the “spy” also has a U.S. bank account, and thus cash wasn’t needed. Well, I carry that cash, too, for domestic travel. It’s just not for international travel. In any case, the U.S. may have been just one stop on a multi-country itinerary. I’ve taken several “round the world” trips where I’ve just flown one direction, such as east, before getting back home. $8k is in the range of cash that such travelers carry.

The same is true of phones and SIMs. Different countries have different frequencies and technologies. In the past, I’ve traveled with as many as three phones (US, Japan, Europe). It’s gotten better with modern 4G phones, where my iPhone Xs should work everywhere. (Though it’s likely going to diverge again with 5G, as the U.S. goes on a different path from the rest of the world.)

The same is true with SIMs. In the past, you pretty much needed a different SIM for each country. Arrival in the airport meant going to the kiosk to get a SIM for $10. At the end of a long itinerary, I’d arrive home with several SIMs. These days, however, with so many “MVNOs”, such as Google Fi, this is radically less necessary. However, the fact that the latest high-end phones all support dual-SIMs proves it’s still an issue.

Thus, the evidence so far is that of a normal traveler. If these SIMs/phones are indeed because of spying, we would need additional evidence. A quick analysis of the accounts associated with the SIMs and the of the contents of the phones should tells us if she’s a traveler or spy.

Normal travelers may be concerned about hidden cameras. There’s this story from about Korean hotels filming guests, and this other one about AirBNB problems.

Again we are missing salient details. In the old days, such detectors were analog devices, because secret spy cameras were analog. These days, new equipment is almost always WiFi based. You’d detect more running software on your laptop looking for MAC addresses of camera makers than you would with those older analog devices. Or, there are tricks that look for glinting light off lenses.

Thus, the “hidden camera detector” sounds to me more like a paranoid traveler than a spy.

One of the frequently discussed things is her English language skills. As the Politico story above, her “constant lies” can be explained by difficulties speaking English. In other stories, the agents claim that she both understood and spoke English well.

Both can be true. The ability to speak foreign languages isn’t binary, on or off. I speak French and German in this middle skill level. In some cases, I can hold a conversation with apparent fluency, while in other cases I’m at a complete loss.

One issue is how understanding different speakers varies wildly. I can understand French news broadcasts with little difficulty, with nearly 100% comprehension. On the other hand, watching non-news French TV, like sitcoms, my comprehension goes to near 0%. The same is true of individuals, I many understand nearly everything one person says while understanding nearly nothing another person says.

99% comprehension is still far from 100%. I frequently understand large sections except for one essential key word. Like listening to French news, I understand everything the news story about some event that happened in that country, but I missed the country’s name at the start. Yes, I know there were storms, mudslides, floods, 100,000 without power, 300 deaths — I just haven’t a clue where in the world that happened.

Diplomats around the world recognize this. They often speak English well, use English daily, and yet in formal functions they still use translators, because there’s always a little bit they won’t understand.

Thus, we know any claim by the Secret Service that her language skills were adequate are false.

So in conclusion, we don’t see evidence pointing to a spy. Instead, we see a careful curation of evidence by the secret service and reporters to push the spying story. We haven’t seen any reporter question what other USB devices can cause software to load other than malware. She may be a spy, of course, but so far, there’s no evidence of anything other than a confused/crazy tourist.



*** This is a Security Bloggers Network syndicated blog from Errata Security authored by Robert Graham. Read the original post at: https://blog.erratasec.com/2019/04/was-it-chinese-spy-or-confused-tourist.html