James Bond has been transported into the modern world in more ways than one, as IT rather than weaponry takes over in the spy's armoury of gadgets.
When he created his spy and assassin James Bond, novelist Ian Fleming brought together two real-world experiences. First was Fleming's knowledge of undercover operations in the Second World War. These sometimes far-fetched plans received an update to the world of the Cold War that, at times, threatened to become very hot.
And truth occasionally mirrored fiction, as we later found out that the US Central Intelligence Agency considered several outlandish ways to assassinate enemies like Fidel Castro, including a poisoned wetsuit.
The Cold War is now behind us, with the Soviet Union replaced by a wider set of concerns, ranging from terrorism through crime to civil wars, as Professor Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute think-tank outlined in a recent speech to a BAE Systems conference.
Clarke pointed to the assassination of Osama bin Laden earlier this year as an example of how technology and military planning have come together.
'Bin Laden's death almost achieved the Hollywood element,' said Clarke, pointing to the images of a rapt Barack Obama, awaiting the moment when US Special Forces would come face-to-face with the country's most wanted man, relayed in real time to the White House.
'We are now in the cyberspace age. We are at the point where real-time information can create the long-range screwdriver,' said Clarke.
The fact that events surrounding an extra-territorial assassination became famous in government-supplied photos underlines how much military planning has changed. The fall of the Berlin Wall removed one threat and signalled the end of history, according to political scientist Francis Fukuyama. But interventions in civil wars followed, coupled with a resurgence in terrorism.
'We always assumed that asymmetric techniques would be [what] opponents used. But we will use them as well. We will use asymmetry where we can,' said Clarke.
'We are faced with a spectrum of conflict,' he added, and pointed to the way that military planners should now think about organised crime as much as conventional warfare. 'In an intra-state conflict, a crime-conflict nexus soon emerges. Within six months, a criminal network forms around the conflict.'
The rise of terrorism and conflict-funded crime – something that featured heavily in Fleming's SPECTRE-oriented novels – drives the background to 'Carte Blanche', Jeffrey Deaver's recent Bond update. Having won permission to translate it to the modern world, Bond is a veteran not of undercover work in World War Two but of the post-9/11 conflict in Afghanistan, recruited into the shadowy Overseas Development Group. He can carry out extra-judicial killings just as long as they don't cause political problems.
Luckily for 007, he doesn't have M or the Prime Minister breathing down his neck over a satellite-TV link. But as with real-world operations in the modern environment, information technology rather than outlandish weapons provides the foundation for Bond's work in 'Carte Blanche'.
References to military jargon, such as MASINT and SIGINT, pepper the book as Bond chases down clues grabbed from the Internet and mobile phone conversations, in pursuit of the real villain behind what the ODG worries could be a major terrorist attack. Everything has a patina of realism: the difference lies in whether the technology actually works as advertised or not.
Where would a Bond novel be without Q Branch? 007 calls upon his favourite gadget from the ODG engineers many times in 'Carte Blanche': 'He fished out his mobile. It resembled an iPhone, but was a bit larger and featured special optics, audio systems and other hardware. The unit contained multiple phones – one that could be registered to an agent's official or non-official cover identity, then a hidden unit, with hundreds of operational apps and encryption packages it had taken all of a day for some wit in the office to dub them 'iQphones'.'
The cost of developing and making enough iQphones for a small bunch of 00s would probably consume the entire annual ODG budget but, fundamentally, the iQphone is not too outlandish. Mobile phones with dual personalities are already in use among the military, but rather than creating specialised hardware, they are choosing to utilise off-the-shelf technology because it's cheaper.
Creating hardware for a custom phone – especially when you might make only 10 or 20 units – is an expensive undertaking if you have to make the chips that go inside it, such as the advanced encryption system. It costs in the region of $100m, according to analyst Gary Smith, to put together one system-on-chip (SoC) and then you also have the problem of where to make it. The chip would have to be fabbed offshore, however, the UK has no advanced logic fabs left within its borders, and the US demands that the designs of some of its military products never leave the country.
The iPhone points the way to how the iQphone could be put together, as long as Q Branch were happy to buy off-the-shelf silicon. The Apple hardware is full of chips stacked on top of each other to save space – it contains comparatively little custom silicon. The chips would need to be shaved wafer thin to squeeze them in, which could only be done at the fab that makes the chips. This would make secrecy harder to ensure, but, as most of the 'unusual' functions are in software, this might not be a problem for Q Branch.
Every spy's favourite tool, the microfilm camera, gets an update to the digital age in 'Carte Blanche'. Concealed in an innocuous asthma inhaler is a tiny digital camera. Again, Q Branch can thank the mobile phone for making it possible.
Phone makers' demands have ensured that the cameras they use are thinner and smaller than ever, freeing up space for more memory or a slightly bigger battery. By sticking image processors on the back of the array of light sensors, today's phone cameras can correct the distortions caused by cheap plastic lenses. It's not clear how Bond's assistants extract the data from the camera but today's image sensors are generally smaller than the USB connector.
Technology developed at places such as Stanford University could even do away with the problems of trying to focus a micro-camera when henchmen are on your tail. Startup company Lytro used the combination of a microlens array and a lot of compute power to make it possible to refocus images after they have been taken. The sensor array, in effect, captures as much image information as it can. The processor that sits behind then tries to reconstitute it into a meaningful image.
Intriguingly, Bond only gets black-and-white images from his micro-camera which seems odd in a world where colour photography is now ubiquitous. But, as you need colour filters to produce a full-colour image from a silicon sensor – and they absorb some of the light that, ideally, you would want to capture – the monochrome approach is better when you don't have much light to play with.
In 'Carte Blanche', the intelligence services not only routinely intercept terrorist and enemy messages, they decrypt them in a matter of minutes to pass on to Bond. We can only hope they have access to superior computers, or that criminals and terrorists use badly implemented encryption technology, as the reality is somewhat different.
Unless you have good information on how encryption has been implemented, your only realistic option is to crack it by brute force. The shorter the key, the better your chance of uncovering it by simply trying out many different combinations. This was the philosophy behind the Cryptography Research's Deep Crack – a box of field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). These are logic chips that can be customised to do a specific job, such as trying out possible encryption keys. FPGAs have improved their density and performance close to a thousand times since Deep Crack was built and the machine demonstrated that the 56bit keys used for the DES encryption system were not long enough. Soon after, people shifted either to triple-DES or more advanced systems such as AES, which supports keys as long as 256bit.
With each additional key bit, the problem becomes twice as hard. In principle, 256bit AES is more or less uncrackable by brute force using today's computer technology. You can go even further and use one-time-pads to encrypt messages bit-by-bit with different keys. Quantum computers could change the situation dramatically but they are far from being able to tackle problems this complex.
Brute force, however, is not what most hackers and security workers use to get inside secret messages. A number of algorithms contain significant weaknesses. For example, most systems rely on random numbers to generate secure keys. However, many computational techniques for producing random numbers have flaws that mean the numbers are nowhere as random as they should be. This realisation led to successful attacks on the domain addressing system that underpins the Internet.
If you have hardware used to perform the encryption in your possession, you can speed things up dramatically. Among others, the man behind Deep Crack, Paul Kocher, has gone on to develop ways to analyse tiny variations in power or timing to watch how computer hardware does encryption and then use that to guess the key. There is now a regular competition among decryption specialists to see how fast they can force a key out of a dedicated encryption system – the winners take just minutes to retrieve the correct key.
Unfortunately for the ODG, they may have to deal with all sorts of different encryption systems and only have the encrypted messages to work on. Without a lucky break, many of the intercepted signals could be nothing but noise.
Tracking a car in 'Carte Blanche' is easy. For starters, you have automatic number plate recognition. As drivers in the UK are only too aware when they have been caught by speed cameras or driving unwittingly into the Congestion Charge zone in London, this technology works very well as long as there are cameras. Where there aren't, for Bond and the ODG there is always MASINT – the military acronym for Measurement and Signature Intelligence.
In Deaver's novel, MASINT gets a slight rebranding to Material and Signature Intelligence but the principle is the same: 'Instruments collected and profiled data such as thermal energy, sound waves, airflow disruption, propeller and helicopter rotor vibrations, exhaust from jet engines, trains and cars, velocity patterns and more.'
In the real world, MASINT got its first test in the Kosovo conflict of the 1990s and, according to US Congressional reports, did not do all that well. However, its main problems in the conflict came down to organisational problems rather than technological. Big technical challenges remain although military planners have accepted that the principles are workable.
Real-world MASINT concentrates mostly on materials, using chemical sniffers carried by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or specialised road vehicles such as the Fuchs NBC. These vehicles look for the residues and vapours produced by explosives in order to warn of chemical attacks on troops.
Satellites can potentially look for much more, using techniques such as hyperspectral analysis which uses signatures collected from many different sensors to look at different parts of the light spectrum and try to work out what an object is. For example, the spectrum of light reflected by paint on a particular model of car may allow a computer to pick it out from an image taken of a car park. Its infrared emissions will determine whether the car has been there for a while or just arrived.
The problem for hyperspectral analysis and MASINT in turn is that changing light conditions can fool the computer as tests run by a group at the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2007 showed. A feasibility study was carried out to determinate whether it was possible to track objects such as cars from airborne sensors. The experiment demonstrated that it can be hard to align data from different sensors accurately: the infrared data did not line-up well with information from the visible light sensors.
A further issue for using MASINT in counter-terrorism is that the focus in military planning has been on detecting types of battlefield vehicle – such as tanks camouflaged in a forest – rather than specific cars or trucks from great distances.
Based on how well the technology works in 'Carte Blanche', Jeffrey Deaver apparently does not spend much time calling his bank or utility companies. Bond is able to call up ODG's head office and, instead of being put through to a human assistant, delivers instructions to an orbiting satellite via a computer armed with voice-recognition software. At no point does it tell him: 'I didn't get that. Can you say again?' or laboriously go through layers of numbered menus.
Speaker-independent voice recognition has improved but is still limited in what it can do. To get a reasonable level of accuracy, most speech recognition systems have to be trained on a person's voice and even then quite of lot of meaning comes down to context that a computer might not understand. Voice recognition tends to work best with structured phrases and clear speech. As training could help with accuracy, it is possible than Bond will have gone through that process and then use known command words and phrases to deliver his orders.
Something that seems more difficult – an active research topic that has even been used to add subtitles to Hitler's home movies – is automated lip-reading. While watching a meeting between targets, Bond trains a camera on one man so that a computer can read his lips. In 2009, researchers from the University of East Anglia concluded that computerised lip-reading had advanced so far that it was more accurate than using humans. More surprisingly, the computers could work with relatively little information. They were able to use the shape of the face rather than needing full-resolution video. *