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June 25, 2013

How good is Edward Snowden at spycraft?

WASHINGTON — 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

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