A Cold War tale reheated for Facebook

Should a spy have a Facebook profile? Well, if he or she wants to fit in with everybody else, the answer is yes.

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
5 min read

A time traveler from the 1960s would find many of today's headlines completely befuddling. Something called the iPhone? Threats from an amorphous, stateless band of terrorists? Reality television? A lot has changed, for sure.

But accused spies for the Kremlin--that's something our unstuck-in-time explorer would thoroughly recognize. Except, of course, when he heard everybody talking about foreign concepts like Facebook and LinkedIn.

Likewise, when the U.S. Justice Department charged 11 people earlier this week with "allegedly carrying out long-term, 'deep-cover' assignments in the United States on behalf of the Russian Federation" (according to an official release), it seemed like a headline that had floated over from the chilliest years of the Cold War like a rogue weather system. But then there's the fact that one of the accused spies, 28-year-old Anna Chapman, had been a prolific Facebook and LinkedIn user, was apparently quite the partygoer on the New York scene and had been the subject of enough photos scattered about the Internet to fill up slideshows for many a pageview-thirsty digital media outlet last week. One of the other alleged secret agents, Mikhail Semenko, has also been identified in pictures from a Russian social network called Odnoklassniki.

In this day and age, Russian spies worthy of early Bond films (or, considering the fact that one of them was flagged for using "99 Fake St." as an address on a cell phone contract, perhaps "Rocky and Bullwinkle" cartoons and their bumbling KGB-inspired villains are a better analogy) are creating profiles, uploading photos, and maybe even buying virtual tractors for virtual Farmville tracts like the rest of us. It's such a funny little anachronism.

"It's hard to kind of reconcile the idea of Russian spies, which is so Cold War--and forget pre-Facebook, we think of this as a pre-cell phone kind of thing," Robert Thompson, a professor of media and culture at Syracuse University, said in a conversation with CNET on Thursday. "Let's remember that the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. Mr. T was still famous at this juncture. It's hard to reconcile that notion."

That sentiment was echoed that night on Comedy Central by mock-pundit Jon Stewart. "First "The A-Team," then "The Karate Kid," and now this? We really do love the 80's!" the late-night host exclaimed on Thursday night's edition of "The Daily Show."

The whole thing does seem like a film remake--a vintage spy thriller that was forcibly uprooted and remade in today's world with almost excessively obvious modern details thrown in for spice, like in the 1976 film adaptation of "King Kong" where the eponymous gorilla climbs the World Trade Center towers instead of the Empire State Building of the 1933 original.

The federal complaint about the alleged spies, for example, mentioned that one of the agents' targets was "a prominent New York-based financier" who was an active political fundraiser. But it turned out not to be just any Wall Street type: the person who's come forth and said that he believes he's the financier in question is Alan Patricof, a venture capitalist at Greycroft Partners, a firm that has backed tech and social-media companies like Twitter ad network Adly, app development firm Buddy Media, content management system CrowdFusion, and--with a tinge of almost-irony--The Huffington Post, the digital media outlet that got its start as a left-leaning politics blog.

These days, we expect all breeds of ne'er-do-wells, from petty miscreants to international terror-mongerers, to have some kind of presence in social media. Italian cops caught an accused Mafia hitman this spring based in part on what he said on Facebook. An escaped convict in the U.K. continued to update his status message, taunting the local authorities. And there was intrigue but not much surprise at the revelation that Faisal Shahzad, the accused Times Square bomb plotter, had a Facebook profile. (Unfortunately, the fact that Facebook's hundreds of millions of members include more than one Faisal Shahzad created a media mix-up at the time.)

Spies seem like a different variety of crook. By design they are unassuming and covert, something that seems difficult to reconcile with the culture of digital exhibitionism. We've seen the culture of the social Web evolve from the anonymity of obscure AOL message-board screen names and airbrushed MySpace pictures toward Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's gospel of the "real identity." At the social network's F8 developer conference this spring, the young CEO asserted, "The Web is at a really important turning point right now...Up until recently, the default on the Web has been that most things aren't social and most things don't use your real identity."

But for a young secret agent like Anna Chapman or Mikhail Semenko, the absence of a Facebook profile could trigger suspicion. If they're going to be like everybody else, of course they're going to use social networks.

"I think this underlies the potential for faux-transparency in social media. We're all our own PR agents now, putting exactly what we want out there," said Rachel Sklar, editor-at-large for media industry news site Mediaite. "Some people really are transparent--too transparent!--and some reveal exactly what they need to for whatever persona they're trying to create. So actually, just like social media is great for building brands quickly, so too could it be used to buttress a false identity. Twitter, a Facebook page, an earnest little LinkedIn--boom! This person exists!"

And accused spy Anna Chapman's willingness to vogue for the camera, in turn, created a false sense of oversharing. Posing in provocative outfits and being spotted at parties does not a "real identity" make, and indeed, it seems as though Chapman was indeed more covert than her Facebook photo count would have anyone believe: when CNBC editor John Carney put out a Twitter request asking if any of his many followers from the New York start-up and venture capital communities had ever encountered her, he says he received no responses.

"We think of social networks where you lie and craft an identity, what one does in a Match.com thing. You lie about what you've done, what your job is, and you put up a picture of yourself from 10 years ago," Robert Thompson said. "We've never really explored the notion of 'Spy vs. Spy' high-stakes kind of things here. But the Internet is a potential perfect environment for all that kind of stuff. If regular people are lying on their Facebook pages all the time, all the more easy for spies to do it."

The obvious flip side of this is that it means having an existing social-network identity could get in the way for a prospective covert operative. Plucking spies from the ranks of a Zuckerberg-indoctrinated generation of young Facebookers may prove more difficult than it has in the past--the Internet might have a notorious case of attention deficit disorder, but it never quite forgets entirely.

Latter-day Boris Badenovs should take note.