Schneier on Security
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May 9, 2007
Poppy Coins Are not Radio Transmitters
Remember the weird story about radio transmitters found in Canadian coins in order to spy on Americans?
The worried contractors described the coins as "anomalous" and "filled with something man-made that looked like nanotechnology," according to once-classified U.S. government reports and e-mails obtained by the AP.
The silver-colored 25-cent piece features the red image of a poppy -- Canada's flower of remembrance -- inlaid over a maple leaf. The unorthodox quarter is identical to the coins pictured and described as suspicious in the contractors' accounts.
The supposed nanotechnology actually was a conventional protective coating the Royal Canadian Mint applied to prevent the poppy's red color from rubbing off. The mint produced nearly 30 million such quarters in 2004 commemorating Canada's 117,000 war dead.
"It did not appear to be electronic [analog] in nature or have a power source," wrote one U.S. contractor, who discovered the coin in the cup holder of a rental car. "Under high power microscope, it appeared to be complex consisting of several layers of clear, but different material, with a wire-like mesh suspended on top."
The confidential accounts led to a sensational warning from the Defense Security Service, an agency of the Defense Department, that mysterious coins with radio frequency transmitters were found planted on U.S. contractors with classified security clearances on at least three separate occasions between October 2005 and January 2006 as the contractors traveled through Canada.
One contractor believed someone had placed two of the quarters in an outer coat pocket after the contractor had emptied the pocket hours earlier. "Coat pockets were empty that morning and I was keeping all of my coins in a plastic bag in my inner coat pocket," the contractor wrote.
Posted on May 9, 2007 at 11:28 AM
• 37 Comments
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When paranoia takes over real security takes a flying leap ...
Security establishment contractors are paid to be paranoid.
They're also supposed to be paid to know better than to freak out.
This is why I always keep all my coins in a Faraday-shielded coin purse. The security contracter who used a PLASTIC BAG should know better. What a maroon.
Hmmm .... look what good it did the Mint. The red on my Poppy Quarters seems to have rubbed off in circulation.
Great! Now we can deploy our real spy poppy coins and no one will suspect anything.
If this great piece of BS had been true, the Canadians would not be as intelligent as I thought. Imagine the Canadian spy staring at his computer screen: "Geez, that guy we are tracking has been standing by the coffee machine for six hours!"
Look at a picture of this coin and maybe you will be a little less disparaging of those contractors:
It sure does look like something stuck onto the coin, not part of the design, and is a multi-layer applique with a metal mesh screen.
I'm so disappointed. I wanted to get one so that I could whisper all of my secret plots at it! Clearly I will have to go back to whispering at the shrubbery and making calls that Verizon can report to the proper authorities...
What! They let people travel into the US with coins?
Those things can be thrown at such a high speed, they could concuss or otherwise injure someone!
Anyone that's ridden on a carnival 'float' can tell you that coins are deadly weapons.
i love the US, they take paranoia over to another level.
Oui r in ur change, listenin to ur secrut planz, eh
Thanks for the link Sam, the coin does look more suspicious when you see the mesh a little more clearly. Fine, it's still a coin, but it does look weird.
Well, don't actually talk to the unwashed heathen natives to see if this is a common coin - if only there were some, I dunno, some common research tool, let's call it a "web" of information, that one could do some due-diligence...
I wonder what security mavens will think about the breast cancer awareness coins the Canadian Mint released last year? These were made with the same technique.
If you look at the coins, they look like they have been screen-printed. Take a look at some printed-circuit boards -- a similar technique is used to print these diagrams on coinage.
Hey! It's not often I get to say "I told you so!" I wonder why the Defense Department didn't, you know, call up the mint to ask them about it. They could have got a nice pamphlet and an invitation to tour the facilities!
(BTW, industrial design fans should be sure to tour the Winnipeg Mint, if only to see the neat little factory behind glass that churns out coins for many different countries.)
So the coins came out in 2004 and 3 years later they cause a scare?
"Somebody sent up us the coin"
"All your quarters are belong to us"
Clearly, there's a real danger here. I'm willing to take the risk upon myself, please send all quarters to the following address for isolation and analysis:
PO Box 513
13302 Century Blvd
Garden Grove, CA 92843
I'll depo, err...dispose of them properly.
"Look at a picture of this coin and maybe you will be a little less disparaging of those contractors:"
The issue isn't whether or not the coin looks "weird." The issue is whether coins make sense as surveillance devices. Which they don't, unless you think it's worthwhile to have valuable surveillance equipment pouring into vending machines, tip jars, fountains, and homeless people's paper cups.
No, you don't get it. I'm trying to locate all the coffee machines in the Pentagon.
(If this great piece of BS had been true, the Canadians would not be as intelligent as I thought. Imagine the Canadian spy staring at his computer screen: "Geez, that guy we are tracking has been standing by the coffee machine for six hours!")
I'm guessing you've never seen the line-ups at a Tim Hortons at 7:30 in the morning! People will stand there for hours to get their "double-double" and a freshly baked honey-glazed! ;-)
It seems to me that "tracking coins" could have reasonable applications.
First thing to remember is that they need not be foolproof - just better than the alternatives.
Lets say you want to know about people who visits more than one site out of a list of sites A through Z. If you can arrange for an RFID detector to be installed at all of the sites, then putting an RFID on each person to visit each site makes sense. Perhaps slipping the coin into their pocket while they are distracted, or giving it to them as change from a vending machine.
So it isn't foolproof, it even suffers from a small chance for false positives as well as false negatives when the rfid coins change hands in a normal cash transaction. But it is relatively easy to implement.
Obviously the investigation of these "rfid coins" should have been a little more rigorous before going hysterically public. But that doesn't mean that theoretically such a tracking tool would be useless.
I don't think it's unreasonable for the contractors to have reported these coins to their security people. After all, as described above these are odd-looking, possibly-electronic devices turning up all by themselves (not, for example, being given to the contractors as change, which is how you would normally expect to aquire coins) in places where they were in a position to overhear conversations (the contractors' car and coat).
Quite why the security people then decided they were tracking devices is rather less understandable.
Odd looking, possibly electronic? They look like coins!! All our money looks odd to you. Some has holograms! Geez. Morons couldn't ask the Mint? *headdesk*
"filled with something man-made that looked like nanotechnology"
Of course, we've all seen many examples of nanotechnology so we all know exactly what it looks like.
If they were any bigger they would have just blown them up.
If you wanted to plant a tracking/listening device on someone, would you really use the most unusual looking coin in the world?
Can devices be put into coins? Sure. Are there better places to put them? Of course. Does this plot make any sense, on any level? No.
In the future, security contractors should keep all valuables in a secure location: their socks.
These guys ought to be paid in quarters from now on. And not for very much longer.
It would be interesting to know what those U.S. contractors with classified security clearances were doing in Canada but I don't suppose we'll ever know.
Perhaps Canada hired Halliburton for something as a favor to Bush and Cheney? After all, the Prime Minister and his Party are Conservatives and they will all need a lucrative place to work after they get turfed out of office. Where better than Halliburton?
By the way, who in the U.S. is paying Brian Baloney these days? Perhaps it's Halliburton and Harper can get the office next door to Mulroney...
Oh no! I just bought a house with wire-like mesh over the windows!
Of course Canadian Currency looks odd to Americans. Our bills are coloured. And the backsides of our quarters change constantly.
And just look at the benefits.
1. don't need to sort our bills
2. loonie is so much easier to say than dollar (we should make the name official)
3. befuddled defence contractors
4. tourist discounts (C$ at par)
These people think they can identify nanotechnology with a microscope? Do they have any idea how small "nano" is?
I'm so glad our DoD contractors are on the lookout for nefarious specie.
(There goes a perfectly good Googlewhack)
it must be alien technology
'The issue isn't whether or not the coin looks "weird." The issue is whether coins make sense as surveillance devices. Which they don't, unless you think it's worthwhile to have valuable surveillance equipment pouring into vending machines, tip jars, fountains, and homeless people's paper cups.'
Well, that's one issue, but I'm not sure it's *the* issue. With cheap and ubiquitous RFI technology, identifying banknotes is very much on the Radar, so RFIing coins is not completely far fetched.
I think the issue is that these contractors have perhaps never travelled outside their own country, and found everything in Canada "weird", and translated that into "the natives are spying on us".
Imagine if they went to a friendly country as exotic as the UK or Japan; people would be driving on the wrong side of the road, the currency would be in suspicious denominations with "weird" colours, sizes, and pictures, and labeled in funny characters, and worst of all - people would be talking in code all around them! Surely they would have to assume the worst and report back.
My guess is these guys were just hayseeds who've never left Kansas before. As to what they were doing in Canada, it's hardly surprising that military contractors travel between allied countries, and are cleared to talk about secret stuff, but not *all* the secret stuff they know. Canada and the US buy plenty of defence technology from each other, so obviously it has to be discussed and demo'd somewhere. Maybe their level of paranoia suggests that they knew some particularly good secret stuff that they were worried about, but I wouldn't bet on it.
The coins look weird? Haven't you ever seen a token for use at an arcade game machine? Or are they all cardswipes now? Plenty of these tokens have the mesh pattern stamped onto them.
Find coin, arch eyebrows at thought of nefarious Canuck spies . . . then walk out to sidewalk to ask almost anyone (assuming they aren't American Contractors ;-) , "Hey buddy, is this a REAL coin? Ever seen one before?"
@Anonymous, 03:43: "Odd looking, possibly electronic? They look like coins!"
Hmm, maybe my last post wasn't as clear as it could be. My point was primarily that these devices, according to the article, *turned up all by themselves*. *That* is pretty unusual -- I can't recall a single case of coins appearing in my car or my coat pocket within hours of me determining that they weren't present.
The fact that they look odd/electronic was more of a "you can't immediately discount their surprising materialisation by their clearly innocuous looks". I wasn't regarding their looks as the thing that would draw the initial attention to them.
Hey,you've got to give them due diligence for performing their duty.If I was in their shoes,didn't know a Canadian coin from a Mexican one,or say I thought I did?A commemorative coin could throw you off?....?Life or death situations will make you suspect anything and everyone!?
Isn't that what they're trained for??
Berke Breathed(?) weekly comic now has a new occaisional character: the Department of Homeland Insecurity. I t is depressing when is outstripped by reality.
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