The Spy Who Shopped Me

When federal agents arrested a group and accused them of being Russian spies, the media quickly turned its attention to a particular spy, one Anna Chapman. A model who appeared to be sent from Central Casting for either a James Bond film or to play Natasha in a Bullwinkle movie (she also has a decent resemblance to Mata Hari, but this story is strange enough as is). This Russian spy case, though, has two key elements impacting retail IT: the spies' use of steganography to embed images on public Web sites, plus some blatantly bogus retail purchases that no store detected.

First, the retail store moves. Chapman was observed walking into a Brooklyn, N.Y., CVS and then a Verizon store before going into a Rite Aid and back to Verizon. (The store changes were supposed to prevent her from being followed. According to the FBI surveillance report, it didn't work very well.)

But when she went into the Verizon store to obtain a Motorola phone and some calling cards for overseas communications, she filled out her application using a customer address of "99 Fake Street." Let's set aside for the moment the obvious espionage question (as in "What self-respecting spies would draw attention to themselves with such an answer?"). What was the store associate who reviewed that form thinking?

Cell phones are known to potentially be dangerous, whether for making communications or remotely setting off explosives. Do associates handling mobile devices understand the implications?

Is IT setting any mechanism to verify the authenticity of such answers? Should it?

Onto the E-Commerce issues. The term "national security" is used far too often and rarely with the proper seriousness. But strangely enough, the alleged Russian spies' use of public Web sites to secretly broadcast messages back to headquarters raises true security concerns that go way beyond one chain trying to get an early heads up on a rival's upcoming sales event.

If spies or terrorists wanted to use this approach, the idea is for their bosses to be able to look at their messages without prompting any suspicions. The best way to do that is for the images to be placed on very well-known sites. What triggers could be set off by someone visiting or Amazon?

This suggests that making an E-Commerce site tamper-proof is now crucial and could truly be a matter of national security. Most security efforts are focused on protecting payment card data and other private customer and retail information. What security does your site have on images?

What about image security on your mobile site?

Better yet, what about image protection on cache versions? A little cloud assistance for uptime? If so, remember that it's been less than a year since Sears was taught its cache lesson. That's when pranksters used the Akamai system that Sears was using to rename an outdoor cooking device as "grills to cook babies."

That Sears matter was only detected and stopped because the images were visible and prompted loud complaints. Had they been invisible—unless you know the exact process to decode it, along with the proper software—it's likely those images may have gone undetected for months, assuming they would ever have been discovered.

Frightening thought for the day: How would your E-Commerce team feel if your site was secretly used by Al Qaeda to launch another attack against civilians? It's the small things that never get fixed. In this case, the alleged Russian spies have given us a harm-free heads up. The question is: Will we do anything about it?