Cracking the Vatican Code

As the world waits for a new Pope to emerge later this week, a cryptic spy-vs-spy game is brewing behind the scenes. And the business world has a lot to learn from the experience of the Holy See.

Amid all the speculation, the 115 cardinals converging at Vatican City took just 30 minutes last Friday to choose 12 March as the date to start the medieval process, rich in tradition and freighted with solemnity, of electing the next pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church.

"The eighth General Congregation of the College of Cardinals has decided that the Conclave will begin on Tuesday, 12 March 2013. A pro eligendo Romano Pontifice Mass will be celebrated in St. Peter's Basilica that morning. In the afternoon, the cardinals will enter into the Conclave," according to a press release posted by the Vatican Information Service on 8 March.

The 115 red-capped prelates will begin the secret anonymous balloting after filing into the Sistine Chapel.

I have a confession: I have sinned. The Sistine Chapel was the place where I tested some of my devices to covertly capture images of the famed ceiling: tiles of the great works of Michelangelo, under the supposedly watchful eyes of the guards and plainclothes police - including members of the Vigilanza, the Vatican's police force.

In the hour I spent playing 007 with the vast frescoes of the Papal Chapel, the images were transmitted to friends halfway across the world and promptly greeted with messages via a hidden smartphone - I did the same with the statue of David in The Gallery of the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence... sorry Michelangelo, but it shows how much I admire your works.

This has relevance because a client once asked me to sweep his office for any hidden bugs. Not just any eavesdropping devices deliberately planted but also to remove anything that could present the same risks, he said. Given the intrigues inside the Catholic Church over the past decade, it is understandable to assume the 115 Cardinals may be just as vulnerable as my client was.

I was not sure if he - or they - truly understand the inconvenient truth and consequences of what he meant. Apart from scanning for any spy devices, the client would have to rid his office of many other things, including his landline phone - those VoIP phones can be manipulated to eavesdrop on and off the hook - fax machine, router, telephone lines, etc. And anyone in his office, including himself, must either leave the smartphone outside or remove the SIM card. All visitors would also have to be scanned from head to toe before entry.

These incidents played out vividly in my mind as I digested news of the latest developments at the Vatican, where its history with spies and espionage activities over the centuries has been well documented. Think how much harder it would be to deal with security needs with 115 scheming potential prelates in the room.

In Spies in the Vatican, author David Alvarez gives insights into another clandestine world of espionage, of how covert activities and intelligence gathering reached the highest level of the Vatican over the past two centuries.

The Entity: Five Centuries of Secret Vatican Espionage by Eric Fratinni explains how the Vatican used a secret spy service called the Holy Alliance to carry out its will for over 5 centuries - "Holy Alliance" was then renamed "The Entity" in 1930 by Pope Pius XI.

Paranoia strikes deep at the ecclesiastical state Vatican City. The most recent episode was the "Vatileaks" scandal last year when the butler of Benedict XVI, Paolo Gabriele, photocopied and leaked secret documents to Italian reporter Gianluigi Nuzzi, alleging corruption in the Holy See. The butler, who used public phones to contact Nuzzi for security reasons, reportedly told the journalist "the cameras inside the Vatican are so powerful that they can even read the lips of people."

One would then expect The Entity and the Vigilanza to be in full swing combing and sweeping frantically in the days leading to the announcement of a new pope.

So I was glad to read a Reuters story on Saturday about how a closed door secret balloting is not enough "in the face of tweeting cardinals and a year of crushing leaks." Hence the security measures taken to sweep for bugging devices and block any signals from sipping out of the 15th-century chapel before the black or white smoke signals.

The corporate world may well relate these to the same paranoia that surrounds highly confidential business meetings. One landmark case involved US computer giant Hewlett-Packard back in 2006 when then chairwoman Patricia Dunn, suspicious of certain members of its board of directors, ordered a secret campaign, codenamed Operation Kona, by hiring investigators to identify the source of an information leak - relating to corporate strategies - from the high-level board meetings.

Anyway, I know of another security lapse at the Vatican City.

During my last visit, the security scanners at the entrance to the Vatican museum set off an alarm. It must be the little bottle of pepper spray my Bella kept in her makeup pouch. I tried to distract their attention by confessing that it must be my phone, watch or belt. But the fierce-looking mustachioed Italian guard shouted "Not you. It's her!" and pointed at my Bella.

"What is that?!" he asked, pointing at the bottle.

"It is... for spraying the face," said Bella.

She was not lying but I stood dumbfounded. Somehow the guard took her word - and believed it was a bottle of facial mist - and we were allowed to go through the gate. And I managed to use my hidden devices at the Sistine Chapel.

Now I pray for those 115 cardinals entering the Conclave tomorrow.

(Vanson Soo runs an independent business intelligence and commercial investigations practice specialized in the Greater China region. Blog: A different version of this ran in The Standard of Hong Kong)