The Walls that Spy

Hotel rooms are never safe havens as spies know only too well, but warnings of the risk often fall on deaf ears, to the sorrow or sometimes embarrassment of the tenants. Two recent news stories and the episode that I describe below hopefully change the public perceptions.

The stories describe how the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) has traced and wiretapped top diplomats in their hotel suites over the past three years through its secret “Royal Concierge” program, which tracked some 350 hotels across the world, according to documents exposed by the former US intelligence contractor turned fugitive Edward Snowden.

Separately, it emerged in media reports last week that US President Barack Obama takes extreme measures to ward off any threats of secret video or audio surveillance by setting up an anti-spy portable tent in his hotel suite when traveling abroad, including in allied countries that the US allegedly targeted in conducting massive surveillance against foreign leaders and citizens. That amplifies the deep US concerns about being spied upon as much as spying on its friends and risks inviting potential hypocritical labeling of the White House.

I have written previously about the risk but there is much more than meets the eye, including an interesting exchange I once had with a foreign agent about the spy trade and hotel room risks.

As the story about the British GCHQ indicates, countries are known to have their spooks prepare hotel rooms in advance for certain guests. But installing hidden physical devices for covert video and audio recordings is old-fashioned tradecraft which could risk being discovered by electronic scanners combing for bugs and radio waves.

One solution involves the adaptation of advanced technologies whereby huge pieces of modified transparent materials, much like those plastic covers used to wrap books, but thinner, were pasted like wallpapers on all vertical partitions of a hotel room.

Few occupants are likely to notice these newly and carefully layered walls. The outcome is a highly compromised room, safe from any scanners. Every physical movement and audio execution within the room would then be recorded.

These techniques have been practiced by federal spy agents in certain countries for many years, according to this government sleuth. In some countries, they were initially used to target local politicians who were identified as being “out of line” and known to receive financial returns and sexual favors in return for their allegedly corrupt actions.

That would explain the sudden resignation of some high-flying politicians, according to the source. When the spy masters decide that enough is enough of a certain individual, or the timing is right to remove the individual, the agents would place a pile of DVDs on the office desk before the politician shows up for work. After watching the first disk, the pale-looking government official would promptly pen a letter for resignation with immediate effect.

The spy agency has a private collection of all their happy hours on standby, the source said.

This conversation was spurred by news coverage on industrial espionage some years ago and why businessmen should exercise caution on business trips abroad. In some countries, foreign spy agents are known to target certain “high value” business travelers and sneak into their rooms when the guests were out for the day. Apart from planting covert surveillance devices, the top concern then was how the agents would lay their hands on the laptop computers left in the rooms.

A more advanced covert method is to save the agents from physically entering the rooms and simply invading the hotel guests’ laptops via the hotel wi-fi network system when the guests log in and work innocently in the comfort of their room.

This latter method would save any footprint or fingerprint, especially against well-cautioned travelers who may have set up preventive measures and booby traps against any invasion into the room. Consequently both parties can happily and separately enjoy the same set of data, unless the hotel guests have smartened up and practiced a safe cyber lifestyle.

Some years ago, a group of computer forensic experts from a major American corporation traveling abroad on assignment found themselves victimized by such practices. And as a sign of triumph over their peers, the culprits deliberately destroyed the hard disks after their cyber penetration – instead of leaving the laptops discreetly, as if to tell the Americans they had been careless.

There is one core lesson in these insights but it is probably hard to digest. As I have written previously, as a rule of thumb the bigger the hotel and the city, the bigger the risk. And as the latest GCHQ revelations demonstrate, the “Royal Concierge” took advantage of the fact that many top diplomats (and I would add top business executives as well) would go for the high-end and global hotel establishments with premier services. It is exactly this preference for luxury that opens up many opportunities and casts considerable risk for the guests.

All things considered, the security measures Obama’s staff put in place on foreign trips, with the secured portable tent, known in the trade as Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities (SCIFs) which are specifically designed to block any acoustic eavesdropping and electronic emanations.

Rather than a portable tent, they are more often in the form of a special room architecturally altered to specific details and requirements set by the CIA. These rooms are often devoid of any windows but may have bomb-proof walls, closed circuit video cameras, reinforced steel doors, biometric security measures and even their own air supply.

For Obama's foreign trips, the security officials would first sweep the hotel suites for bugs before erecting the portable tent – judging from the photos released, the interior of the tent has all areas covered except the floor, which is the hotel room carpet.

Once cleared, the president would then enter the tent to discuss any sensitive matters in complete privacy.

In the midst of recent revelations about cyber snooping and spying activities by the US National Security Agency, including listening in on allied leaders such as Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and now insight on how the US has been taking measures deemed impervious to snooping by foreign agents, it would be interesting to see the next round of technological development to break through these SCIFs. Perhaps the carpets can grow ears.

(Vanson Soo runs an independent business intelligence and commercial investigations practice specialized in the Greater China region. Blog: