“Lessons Learned from the Asbestos Spy” by Hazards Magazine Editor Rory O’Neil
Posted on January 12, 2017
There’s quite a few cautionary lessons [regarding the Rob Moore asbestos spy case], some of which I didn’t anticipate. These were reinforced by the recent Voiceless Victims spying revelations, where many of the same people were targeted over their safety and labour rights activities.
The basic lessons are:
- Spies may always have some success accessing us. None of the asbestos activists are (or at least, were) particularly shy about telling anyone who will listen about our opinion of the asbestos industry and our intentions to frustrate it at every turn, nor is there a secret strategy to access. But neither did we invite in this spy (and possibly other so far unidentified individuals working on the same K2 project) without undertaking some checks. The TV production company he worked for appeared to be genuine, he dropped the right names when questioned on the issue, and he didn’t appear to be expressing interest beyond that that might be expressed by a journalist working on a genuine story. He talked the talk and understood the process. Moreover, enough of his back story was genuine to make the gaps seem less worrying – he only lied about stuff he needed to lie about. The Voiceless Victims approach was a bit different – they created a credible edifice which established a degree of credibility, however the back stories in the two named individuals didn’t hold up to scrutiny (but the seemingly credible and sympathetic organisation meant the focus didn’t fall onto these individuals until sometime further down the line). Basing it in France, I’m guessing, was deliberate as it made checks a little more difficult.
- Having done (and continuing to do) good, supportive work is not necessarily indicative of good intentions. In both the asbestos case and the Voiceless Victims case, the spies said the right things, posted sympathetic messages on social media and, in the case of the asbestos spy, produced a video which we found genuinely useful. This all shored up the back story, which in this case involved getting an interview with a top official at the World Health Organisation. The evidence of sympathetic work was probably the single ruse that made us most vulnerable – we didn’t anticipate they would go this far to establish credibility.
- The phone and face to face contact is only a part – and perhaps relatively insignificant part – of the information gathering process. Accessing communications covertly I suspect was a much higher priority. In the Voiceless Victims case, it was only the more sophisticated IT systems employed by Amnesty that exposed the practice. According to the Forbes article, their cybersecurity consultant “discovered that on clicking attachments, a report would fly back to the sender, containing the IP address, approximate geolocation and computer information of the recipient, including operating system and web browser. In some emails, GIFs unnoticeable to the human eye contained code that could retrieve the same information for the sender. He told me that whilst marketers use similar tools – Voiceless Victims used the WhoReadMe.com and ReadNotify.com services – to get receipt notifications, this appeared much more invasive and targeted.” The asbestos spy sent me unsolicited links to dropbox folders, containing videos and other materials, for review. I never did, by chance, and should perhaps have become concerned at the spy’s urging of me to review the materials [I am hoping to get the documents checked out by cybersecurity people sometime soon].
- It’s easy to overlook warning signs. Even towards the end of the process I was only concerned I was dealing with an ineffectual journalist – the big story plans never appeared any nearer to fruition – but not a spy. However, he never copied me in to correspondence with the big names and TV producers with whom he claimed to be liaising. And while he claimed to be operating on a shoestring budget, I was puzzled how he managed to travel widely to meet contacts (the US, Vietnam, Canada) when I couldn’t identify any single media project that would have financed this – I know from experience, TV companies are increasingly reluctant to fund expensive documentaries involving international travelling and filming, unless they involve cute animals. But there was always another big plan – a new story, a charity to set up, a person to expose – to keep the process rolling. The concentration on detail deflected attention from the wider questions about what he was doing, who was bankrolling it and what he hoped to achieve from it.
- They tie up resources. Just dealing with the asbestos spy took up a lot of collective hours that could have spent productively on genuine campaign activities. This I’m sure is part of the work plan. Not only do we spend time dealing with them, we get deflected from doing similar but real work.
- Even being exposed is part of their success. We all have full inboxes, replete with ostensibly (and possibly, overwhelmingly) genuine requests from the media, groups and individuals. However, since these spying stories emerged there is far greater reluctance from many to speak out, make links or deal with the media. Just making us paranoid has made us less effective. Out of respect to others, I won’t pass on details of individuals as I once did – not because these are not easily found via Google, but because I don’t want to infer they come with my recommendation. In future, should anyone drop my name by way of an introduction, I’d want the recipient to check with me before going further.
- We don’t communicate enough about this stuff. It took tip-offs from other sympathetic organisations to alert many of us to what was going on. The same spies crop up in multiple campaigns. We only found out about the asbestos spy because of a warning from another human rights campaign that had eventually rumbled him – using the same name and the same tactics. But just because some part of their operation has been exposed, doesn’t mean the process has stopped. We need better shared intelligence. Some groups like Amnesty have the resources and sophistication to know this process has been going on for some time. For many of the rest of us, we don’t know what we don’t know.
- We don’t have a plan, or if we do, no-one has told me about it. I don’t think being more paranoid is the answer, not because there isn’t grounds, but because it will shackle us and probably not overly inconvenience them. I think Rob Moore, the only asbestos spy so far outed, could have infiltrated our network even if we’d been far more circumspect. Further, the next time they come, I’m sure they’ll have a plan to deal with any additional suspicion. So, I’m at a genuine loss and would welcome guidance.