The Stingray cell phone device can listen to thousands of calls at once

Credit: EFF via Wikimedia Commons

The Stingray is essentially a cell-tower mimicking device. This means it can force any and all cell phones in its range to connect to it and act as the cell carrier for that device, without the owner’s permission. The Stingray can listen in on calls and messages and can pinpoint a cell phone to an exact position. Although unconfirmed, it’s thought the Stingray can capture the data of thousands of cell phones during one operation.

Tiny ‘bug’ drones are being deployed to spy on targets

In 2020, the UK military invested in more than 30 so called ‘bug’ drones. These drones, no bigger than a cell phone, can be used to spy on targets over 2km away. The use of unmanned aerial vehicles has caused controversy, as both the US and Turkish military have been known to use drones to assassinate targets abroad.

Directed microwave radiation may already have been used to make enemy officials ill

Unconfirmed reports of what came to be known as ‘Havana syndrome’ suggested diplomats were targeted at the US embassy in Cuba in 2016-17. The US accused Cuba of using what they called ”sonic attacks” on the embassy using microwave radiation, resulting in the mystery illness of workers and their families. Cuba vehemently deny these claims.

Digital honeytraps are used to snare unsuspecting targets via the web

The honeytrap method has now moved online. In 2017, a US cyber-security company called SecureWorks foiled an Iranian-backed attempt at spying on one of their workers by using a fake Facebook and LinkedIn profile of a woman called Mia Ash. ‘Mia’ had hidden malware in an innocuous-looking Excel sheet she sent him, which would have opened up access to SecureWorks’ entire computer systems.

Pegasus spyware can hack any cell phone

Developed by the Israeli cyber-arms company NSO Group, Pegasus (named after the winged horse from Greek mythology) can hack any cell phone it wants. It is capable of reading text messages, listening in on calls and can even access the camera. It has been used in the past to spy on terrorists and, controversially, also by governments to spy on journalists and human rights activists.

The ‘thousand grains of sand’ method turns useless data into valuable intel

The thousand grains of sand method of modern spycraft entails gathering huge amounts of seemingly irrelevant data. This data is then filtered and sorted to reveal a pattern of your target’s behaviours. Allegedly used by Beijing’s Ministry of State Security, this method involves setting up legitimate companies in other countries, such as banks or news organizations, and utilizing their position to gather information of that country’s developments, one ‘grain of sand’ at a time.

Google ‘dorking’ allows intelligence agencies to take over a website

Not as high tech as it may sound, Google dorking is a technique used by intelligence agencies the world over. A method of using Google applications to expose the vulnerability of website script, it allows the attacker to take control of a site. In 2015, Iranian hackers used the Google dorking technique to penetrate the computers controlling Bowman Avenue Dam near New York. Though no damage was caused, the hackers gathered information of the dam’s flood prevention procedures.

Spy balloons are enjoying a renaissance

As highlighted in early 2023 with the shooting down of the Chinese spy balloon over the US, reconnaissance balloons are making a comeback. Dating as far back as the French Revolution, the spy balloon’s low tech qualities are perfect in today’s world. Satellites can be tracked and targeted far more easily, and also cost millions to build and launch – whereas a balloon is cheap, not easily detected and easily replaceable.

The Phoneinfoga program can identify if a phone user is real or fake

Phoneinfoga is a relatively simple program that allows spies to determine if a target’s phone is real or fake. A burner phone is essential for any modern spy, allowing them to have a new, untraceable number not linked to any information, but Phoneinfoga will show if a phone number they have gained access to is that of a genuine person or simply a burner.

Some modern spies stand out in a crowd in order to blend in

Former footballer Jay Dobyns spent much of his career as an undercover agent at the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, where, thanks to his tattoos, he was able to infiltrate the infamous Hells Angels. This technique went against previous undercover traditions of having no tattoos in order to not stand out in a crowd.