Sure, Edward Snowden’s non-flight to Cuba, whereabouts in Russia, and request for asylum in Ecuador are getting most of the attention this week. But amid all the hubbub, Monday’s news also brought us this small but intriguing detail from a New York Times story on how Snowden planned his exit from Hong Kong over a “cloak-and-dagger” pizza dinner.
“Mr. Snowden,” the paper noted, “wore a cap and sunglasses and insisted that the assembled lawyers hide their cellphones in the refrigerator of the home where he was staying, to block any eavesdropping.”
The ol’ cell phones-in-the-refrigerator trick is just one of many tradecraft-esque moves we know Snowden has attempted since going on the lam. He’s lined the door of his hotel room with pillows, for example, and worn a hood while entering computer passwords. But how useful is putting cell phones in the fridge, really? Is wearing a hood while using your laptop stopping anyone from watching what you’re doing? In other words: Does Edward Snowden know what he’s doing when it comes to covert ops?
We reached out to FP contributor David Gomez, a former assistant special agent-in-charge and counterterrorism program manager with the FBI, to get his take. When was Snowden being savvy — and when did it seem as if he’d just watched a few too many spy movies?
Cell phones in the fridge
While it’s true that cell phones can easily be compromised and turned into recording devices, Gomez says it’s unlikely that anyone seeking to record Snowden would have used a phone anyway. If someone had wanted to eavesdrop, Gomez explains, he or she more likely would have worn a concealed wire. Or, if a government’s agents had been trying to listen in from outside of the room, they might have deployed a long-range microphone, among other techniques. The bottom line: a refrigerated cell phone probably wasn’t stopping anyone who wanted to listen badly enough — though it may have extended the phone’s battery life.
Lining the hotel door with pillows
While not particularly effective at stopping anyone actively seeking to spy on Snowden, pillows could have muffled the sounds of any conversations going on in his Hong Kong hotel room enough that an unsuspecting person passing by wouldn’t overhear something alarming, Gomez says.
Wearing a hood while entering computer passwords, to avoid hidden cameras
The danger while entering computer passwords is unlikely to come from a hidden camera planted in the hotel, Gomez says, but rather from keystroke-logging software, against which a hoodie provides little protection.
Signaling his identity to reporters by carrying a Rubik’s Cube through a hotel
While spies do at times use signals to identify one another, the idea in doing so is to not draw attention to yourself, Gomez explains. Thus, when arranging a meeting, as Snowden did with a group of journalists in Hong Kong, it is both unhelpful and unnecessary to carry something as out of place as a Rubik’s Cube. It would have been better, Gomez adds, for Snowden to have simply described, say, his clothing in detail. “If you’re going to meet with all these people, what’s the point of being Sneaky Pete?” Gomez asks.
In general, Gomez notes, Snowden’s stabs at tradecraft seem like the work of an amateur — “the I’ll be here, wearing a grey fedora, smoking this brand of cigarette kind of thing.”
“I’ve never gotten the sense that he really understood what covert tradecraft is about,” he observed.
Then again, Snowden spent enough time working in the intelligence community to know a thing or two about the long arm of U.S. law — plus he’s a very wanted man. It’s enough to inspire considerable paranoia — the kind that might make even the most grounded person chuck a cell phone in the fridge.