Friday, 9 January 2015

The good old bad days


MI6 probably thought it could relax a bit after the Berlin Wall came down and the IRA seemed to move into ordinary politics, but they are worked off their little feet right now, and are desperately trying to increase their effectiveness by openly circumventing privacy laws rather than covertly circumventing them as they used to do.

It has come to something when Britain's Secret Service has to ask permission to tap into potential terrorist's mobile phones and internet, but that is what they are doing right now. I can't help thinking that they would do it anyway, but by publicly asking politicians if it would be ok, they may just be trying to show the bad guys that they are on their case. Maybe that is just another conspiracy theory.

Real criminals seldom use the internet for anything other than a bit of online shopping, though. They use the 'Dark Net', which the police and MI6 need no permission to break into without a warrant.

The Dark Net must be a pretty unpleasant place to hang around. Hard-line religious fundamentalists are forced to rub shoulders with paedophiles, arms-delaers and drug-dealers, which must produce not a little conflict of interest. I suppose the 'tea-boys' of the Afghanistan war-lords who grow opium to fund their activities amount to much the same thing as sex-slaves, so maybe it is not so different after all.

I miss the innocent days of my innocence, when The Famous Five could round up criminals during Summer holidays by the sea, and the criminals were usually swarthy and unshaven Gypsies with blackish, ragged clothes, hobnail boots and peaked caps - before Adidas had even been thought of.

Do you remember randomly tuning the big, old-fashioned valve radios and stumbling upon strange broadcasts in the middle of the night, which consisted of a man carefully reeling-off lists of apparently haphazard numbers for hours on end?

These broadcasts were made in the heart of London to be listened to by British spies in the field, when the 'field' was often East Germany, Russia or any other Eastern Block country.

The spy would set off from England carrying a perfectly ordinary novel or thriller which might have been popular in the day, and an identical copy was kept at the headquarters of the network at home.

A message would be sent to the spy abroad, broadcast at a certain time and at a certain frequency, and the code was simple.

The page number of the book would be chosen, then various letters of various lines in the book would be selected and given a number according to their position on the page. Laboriously, the spy could make up the sentence at his leisure, having dictated the numbers on a bit of paper as they were broadcast. Delightfully simple and cryptic without knowing what the book was. You could even hide codes within this code if you thought that the enemy knew what the book might be.

The other thing I liked listening to was the radio jamming signals put out by the Russians to block these transmissions. They were like listening to a huge, mad factory rhythmically producing some hellish product which created radio-waves as a by-product.

Many's the time I have fallen asleep in a German hotel room listening to all that stuff.


23 comments:

  1. Actually, all MI6 are doing is trying to get all the providers to keep records of all calls and emails.

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  2. What a relief to catch a re-run of Smiley's People on BBC4 the other night. It's such a joy to watch the good ole' bad ole' days! When spies were spies and wanting to come in from the cold!

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    1. I loved that when it came out. The music and pictures of Oxford too...

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  3. I miss randomly tuning radios very much. When I last bought a radio I asked if it was possible to still buy them. The boy didn't answer and appeared not to know what I was talking about and there was a long silence during which I felt old and out of date. . I paid up and left. I always liked the random languages and guessing what they were speaking, and it had to be behind the iron curtain of course, when most of the time it was only Hilversum.

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    1. Pounds, shillings and pence and pounds and ounces - he won't understand. I went to Hilversum once - it was like a vast, strange farm, with acres (hectares?) of regimented rows of aerials all linked together with wire.

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  4. My late former father-in-law (who was a 'diplomat'), once gave me an old envelope to put some papers in. When I opened it later on, I discovered a short poem typed on the inside. I should have kept it; I suspected skullduggery.

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    1. I had a white Russian girlfriend once (or her mother was) and her uncle was a top man in Amnesty International. He told me a few things about them as well.

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  5. Spy vs Spy...the espionage of my youth as well. I do often wonder is the world really filled with more horror or is the level unchanged it's just with technology we all know too much? See too much, hear too much? Then again if we had had the internet 100 years ago perhaps our increased knowledge would've pushed us to stop things sooner. I guess all I'm saying is...I miss dial radios too.

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    1. I miss aspects of the analogue age, but not many!

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  6. When I was young my listening world was more atuned to Dick Barton - Special Agent.

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    1. That's where Radio 4 Extra comes in - he'll be back!

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  7. I just read a book of this very thing. I used to donate money to Amnesty International.

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  8. I missed all that spy stuff on the radio. Very early on I was trying to tune in a crystal set to get ANYTHING and then it was the more important business of Radio Luxembourg

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    1. Or the even more important, Radio Caroline?

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  9. Darling Tom,

    We rather wanted to be spies.....

    Highly instructive in the art of spying is archive film material at the sculpture park in Budapest. There, whilst languishing amongst the repositioned statues of Lenin and the tableaux of Communist workers, one can learn the true art of Spymanship. It may come in handy yet.....

    Wishing you and your family all joy, peace and success for 2015.

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    1. Welcome back, Hat@ts, and I hope you are both well! I for one wish you all that for 2015 as well. I was never invited to the lower corridors of Whitehall, even though I did go down there a few times with military friends, and knew a few spies in Cambridge quite well.

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  10. I don't remember those broadcasts but I may be, dare I say, a little bit too young. Only a bit. When I was about twelve I either wanted to be a spy or fly fighter jets. They didn't take women pilots in those days obviously and it's probably a good thing as type 1 diabetes and politics would have scuppered my career too.

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    1. A diabetic Leftie? You could have worked for the other side, using Cuba as your base - what a life!

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