The fascinating world of espionage has inspired many authors and film makers alike over the years and continue to enthral us with works of fiction. But the real world stories of spies have an added layer of thrill to it. This piece in the Economist talks about the instances where spies have infiltrated regular business corporations in pursuit of their mission (including one spy who worked as The Economist’s journalist). Not just infiltrating as employees, the article highlights entire corporations with legitimate business activities set up for espionage. In this context, in an increasingly data driven world, the west’s fears of the Chinese telecom company, Huawei as a means for Chinese espionage efforts may not be without reason.
“..Crypto AG, a Swiss company that rose to dominate the global market for cipher machines after the second world war. By the 1990s it was apparent that the firm was in bed with the National Security Agency (NSA), America’s eavesdroppers. The truth, it turns out, was even more remarkable. From 1970 to the 2000s, at least, Crypto AG was wholly owned by the CIA and, until 1993, the BND, Germany’s spy agency, according to the Washington Post. “It was the intelligence coup of the century,” crowed a CIA report. “Foreign governments were paying good money…for the privilege of having their most secret communications read.”
The history of intelligence is littered with such front companies, used to collect intelligence or carry out covert skulduggery. “Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare”, a forthcoming book by Thomas Rid, describes how the CIA seed-funded and controlled a printing house in Berlin in the 1950s to spread propaganda in the Soviet bloc. It published political pamphlets and news magazines, forged and real, as well as a lonely-hearts newsletter, a women’s magazine, and even publications devoted to astrology and jazz. It was one of many publishing houses and publications around the world that were covertly subsidised by the CIA and KGB to spread influence.
Some fake firms have been devilishly crafty. In the 1970s, at the height of the Troubles, the British Army established a brothel and launderette in Belfast. Not only could soldiers use laundry vans to move around discreetly, but IRA suspects’ clothes could be tested for explosive residue (both operations were eventually exposed and shot up). MI6 similarly operated a bogus travel agency that would lure republicans to Spain with free holidays, where they could be recruited as double agents. In the 1980s Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, ran a Sudanese beach resort that was used to smuggle out thousands of Jews from neighbouring Ethiopia.”

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