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Chinese Hackers Are Luring Diplomats With Promises of Porn

Let's say you're a spy working for a major international power, and you'd like to gain access to the internal deliberations of a certain group of foreign ministries. Ideally, you'd like to provide the head of your government with information about foreign governments' trade deliberations and the negotiating position these countries are likely to adopt at an upcoming trade summit.

How would you go about obtaining this information? You could of course scour open source information -- press reports, statements by country leaders, etc. -- for clues as to how they will approach the negotiations. You could also attempt to recruit informants at these nations' embassies in your own country. Or you could recruit someone within the relevant ministries.

But upon consideration you realize that these tactics are either unlikely to deliver the results you're looking for or are just too risky. Wouldn't it just be easier if you could tap into foreign ministry servers and steal the documents or emails with the information you need?

That calculation is partly why hacking activities on behalf of sovereign nations has skyrocketed. But that increase in hacking has also come with a twist on age-old spy techniques. In a scheme that came to light Tuesday, the computer security firm FireEye revealed that Chinese hackers managed to gain access to the foreign ministry servers of five European countries by sending their diplomats emails with a link that promised to provide naked photos of Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the wife of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

In short, a classic spy trick has gone digital.

The use of attractive, alluring women -- and a fair number of men -- is a proven tool of spycraft. In 1986, when an Israeli technician travelled to London with the intent of exposing his country's nuclear program to the London Sunday Times, Israel dispatched a female agent. The paper stashed him a house in the suburbs of London while the attempted to verify his story, but before they managed to do so, the technician, a man by the name of Mordechai Vanunu, told the Times that he had met a woman -- the agent, of course, -- and that they would be going to Rome for the weekend. While there, he was seized by Israeli agent and shipped back to Israel for a prompt trial on charges of treason.

But the Israeli operation, while elegant, pales in comparison to other honey trap operations. During the 1950s, the notorious East German spymaster Markus Wolf developed a cadre of spies consisting of his most handsome, intelligent spies. He nicknamed them his "Romeo spies," and they were sent into West Germany to seduce the increasing number of women headed toward positions of power in post-war Germany. With a dearth of men following the war, women were suddenly ascendant in German society, and this created an opportunity for Wolf. The plot was wildly successful. One agent developed through the Romeo program passed information on the West's deployment of nuclear weapons. Another managed to place herself as a secretary in the office of the West German chancellor at the time, Helmut Schmidt.

Now, Chinese hackers have taken the same concept and put a digital spin on it. But rather than having to go through the long process of creating a fictitious relationship, the digital lure simply trades on the basic sex drive of straight, male European diplomats who have probably all found their minds wandering toward the lithe figure of Bruni during one interminable European summit meeting or another.

Markus Wolf is probably smiling from his grave.

Cancan Chu/Getty Images

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She Documented Syria's Chemical Atrocities. And Now She's Been Kidnapped.

 

BEIRUT - Syrian activist Razan Zaitouneh was reportedly kidnapped today from her office in the suburbs of Damascus, along with her husband and two colleagues. It is still unknown whether she was taken by President Bashar al-Assad's regime or Islamist rebels who have been growing in strength in the area - she has loudly criticized both as mortal threats to the revolution.

In some ways, Zaitouneh is a throwback - one of the few internationally-known activists who has remained in Syria since the days when civic resistance, rather than armed revolt, were the uprising's calling card. A human rights lawyer, she launched the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), which meticulously tracks the casualties of the Syrian uprising and provides ground-level reports of the atrocities committed by the regime. She has also spoken out against al Qaeda-affiliated groups' presence within rebel ranks - her last article castigated the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) for allegedly kidnapping a pro-revolution Syrian doctor, saying that the group's liquidation of human rights activists complemented the work of the Assad regime.

Zaitouneh has been a wanted woman for years, and journalists and activists alike were often astounded by her decision to remain in hiding in the Damascus suburbs. But her presence at the center of the conflict gave her a unique view on the events wracking her country: She and her team were some of the first activists on the scene following the Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack, where they documented the unfolding tragedy. As she reported, several media activists lost their lives from sarin exposure by filming the aftermath of the attack.

Zaitouneh was chosen in 2011 as one of Foreign Policy's Global Thinkers, and recorded a video for our annual event explaining why Syrians would risk everything to stand up to the Assad regime. At the time, only 4,500 people had died - a figured that shocked Syrians then, but pales in comparison to the over 120,000 who have been killed today. In just a small sign of how challenging it must have been to conduct her work from the capital's battered suburbs, the process of sending FP the video turned into a day-long ordeal. The Internet connection where she was hiding was insufficient to upload the video, forcing her to head to another location - where the connection failed again. "I can't do it, it's impossible," she wrote to me in frustration at one point.

But in the end, the impossible became possible. Zaitouneh finally succeeded in sending us the video, and her explanation of why Syrians continue to go out to protest played in front of hundreds of people, and have been viewed on the Internet by thousands more. "We face one of the most brutal regimes in the region and the world, mostly with peaceful protests, songs of freedom - chanting for a new Syria and a new future," she said. "Discovering for the first time within decades our voices and personalities, and how it feels to bring down walls of fear as we stand for our beliefs."