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Bugged Bears, Spy Irons, and the Pope: Global Spying Went Nuts Today

The Pope is being targeted by U.S. eavesdroppers. Julian Assange is sending packages with video cameras and GPS trackers. The Russians are using teddy bears to snoop on G-20 officials. Spy chips are popping up in electric irons. Oh, and the NSA, it turns out, has broken into Google and Yahoo's datacenters.

In short, this is the week the torrent of spying allegations went totally over the top.

According to Italy's Corriere della Sera, Russian spies handed out teddy bears, cell phone charging cables, and USB storage drives with the ability to clandestinely intercept and download data from computers and cell phones to diplomats and officials attending the G-20 summit. The scheme was apparently uncovered when Herman von Rompuy, the president of the European Council, asked his security detail to examine the gifts handed out to his staff. "These are devices adapted to the clandestine interception of data from computers and mobile telephones," the Council declared in a report.

The ridiculous scheme calls to mind an episode from 1999 in which the NSA banned Furbys, the annoyingly popular furry toy, from its headquarters because they feared that they might be used to spy on agency employees. (As it happens, Furbys are used in Thomas Pynchon's latest novel, Bleeding Edge, to spy on a secretive tech company.) But compared to the other revelations about electronic spying this week, the teddy bear episode is but a blip on the radar.

If there were any doubts as to the brazenness of the NSA, let this revelation put them to rest: The NSA has in all likelihood been spying on the Pope, at least if a report in the Italian magazine Panorama is to be believed. The NSA was monitoring calls into and out of the residence where then-Cardinal Jose Bergoglio was staying during the Conclave. So were the analysts at the NSA just trying to get a leg up in their betting pool on the next pope? No, claims Panorama, which describes the surveillance efforts as part of the agency's efforts to determine leadership intentions. That aspect of NSA operations was in the spotlight Tuesday at a House Intelligence Committee hearing, where Director of National Intelligence James Clapper downplayed allegations that the NSA had spied on foreign leaders -- most importantly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- by cribbing a line from the classic film Casablanca -- "My God, there's gambling going on here" -- to argue that spying on world leaders are part and parcel of the agency's activities. The irony now is that the agency may now a thing or two about Pope Francis' -- and, supposedly, by extension God's -- feelings on intelligence gathering. But for now, the Vatican isn't too worked up about the allegations. "We don't know anything about this, and in any case we don't have any concerns about it," Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said.

Meanwhile, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has launched something of a gonzo activist project, sending a package to the imprisoned Bahraini activist Nabeel Rajab complete with a camera, a GPS tracker, and appeals for his release. The package is described as a "live mail art piece" and through a hole in the box is documenting its journey with photos taken from the camera inside the box. The package looks to have just left London's Stanstead airport, though according to WikiLeaks it was "mysteriously" held there for 24 hours:

The project is a funny piece of political performance art. With the package now en route to Jaw Prison in Bahrain, where Rajab is being held, prison staff will presumably open the package and discover the camera inside and the appeals for Rajab's release, making for a sort of tragicomic scene in which befuddled Bahraini prison officials try to figure out what to do with this package. And, of course, the whole thing will be live-tweeted. In effect, Assange has fashioned himself into something of a Q-like character for dissidents and turned the proverbial all-seeing eye of the surveillance state back on the watchers. 

Speaking of finding surveillance gadgets in unexpected places, Rossiya 24, a state owned television channel in Russia, has a report claiming that electric irons shipped in from China contain what are described as spy chips. That report shows a technician extracting one of these "spy chips" and a "little microphone" from a batch of Chinese irons. These chips are allegedly used primarily to spread viruses over unsecured wi-fi networks and have also been found in mobile phones and dashboard cameras. If the report is true and not just a piece of anti-Chinese propaganda, electronic spying and hacking has now become so ubiquitous that even your iron is busy infecting your computer with malware. The whole episode serves as weird confirmation that the uber-paranoid worldview of someone like Pynchon might actually be pretty justified.

But when it comes to ridiculous infiltration of networks, the NSA remains the undisputed king, and on Wednesday the Washington Post published a bombshell report based on documents provided by Edward Snowden that the agency has infiltrated the links that connect Google and Yahoo data centers around the world. By tapping into these links, the NSA has effectively gained access to the cloud storage systems of both companies and, as a result, a massive trove of user data. In one of many absurd turns in the Snowden saga, the Post story includes an sketch by an NSA employee showing where the Google cloud and the public Internet intersect - which is also the point at which Google adds and removes its encryption system. That breakthrough in penetrating Google's systems is illustrated with an utterly banal -- and totally sinister -- smiley face:

Take a moment to savor that smiling little character, the stupid face of the modern surveillance state, and think of it when you pull a spy gadget out of your complimentary Russian teddy bear or Chinese iron. Oh, and also every time you log onto Yahoo or Google.

John Moore/Getty Images

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