Theft and "Dumpster Diving"

This discussion of theft focuses on theft by outsiders, not by insiders, although such theft may be aided by information provided by an insider. Principal targets for theft are laptop computers (stolen for the information on them as well as for the value of the computer), sensitive papers taken from waste baskets, trash containers or dumpsters (often called "dumpster diving"), and sensitive equipment (stolen or diverted briefly so that it may be copied),

Laptop Computers

Laptop computers are a prime target for theft from your office, your home, or at airports, hotels, railroad terminals and on trains while you are traveling. They are an extremely attractive target for all types of thieves, as they are small, can be carried away without attracting attention, and are easily sold for a good price. They are also a favorite target for intelligence collectors, as they concentrate so much valuable information in one accessible place.

See Security of Laptops in the Computer Vulnerabilities module for a complete discussion of laptop security, including measures you can take to protect your laptop from theft and to protect the information on your laptop from authorized access.

The risk of having your laptop stolen is especially high while you are traveling. Two incidents at separate European airports demonstrate the modus operandi of thieves operating in pairs to target laptop computers:

  • Airport security at Brussels International Airport reported that two thieves exploited a contrived delay around the security X-ray machines. The first thief preceded the traveler through the security checkpoint and then loitered around the area where security examines carry-on luggage. When the traveler placed his laptop computer onto the conveyer belt of the X-ray machine, the second thief stepped in front of the traveler and set off the metal detector. With the traveler now delayed, the first thief removed the traveler's laptop from the conveyer belt just after it passed through the X-ray machine and quickly disappeared.
  • While walking around the Frankfurt International Airport in Germany, a traveler carrying a laptop computer in his roll bag did not notice a thief position himself to walk in front of him. The thief stopped abruptly as the traveler bypassed a crowd of people, causing the traveler also to stop. A second thief, who was following close behind, quickly removed the traveler's laptop computer from his roll bag and disappeared into the crowd.

All travelers, both domestic and international, should be alert to any sudden diversions when traveling, especially when transiting transportation terminals. If victimized, travelers should report the thefts immediately to the authorities and be able to provide the make, model information, and serial number of their laptop computer or any other item of value. 1

Dumpster Diving

There is an old saying that "one man's trash is another man's treasure." That is certainly true in the intelligence world.

bullet  Taking papers from dumpsters outside offices is called "dumpster diving" and is a common tactic used by commercial information brokers as well as foreign intelligence services. "Trash cover" is a standard methodology used by investigators and intelligence agents throughout the world. It involves collecting and going through the trash left out for collection in front of residences and businesses. Trash may also be stolen from waste baskets by cleaning crews.

In 1991 a guard observing the home of a senior executive of a defense contractor in Houston, Texas, observed two men in an unmarked van take trash bags that had been put out for routine trash collection. The guard obtained the van's license number and later identified one of the men as the consul general from a friendly Western European country that collects economic intelligence in the United States. When confronted, the consul general claimed that he and an assistant were simply trying to collect bags of grass cuttings for filler -- to fill a hole dug at the consulate compound for a swimming pool that could not be completed because of a zoning dispute.

Stealing trash is not illegal. The Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that once an item is left for trash pickup, there is no expectation of privacy or continued ownership.

Strict procedures govern the disposal of classified information. For disposal of sensitive unclassified waste, however, each government office or private company sets its own regulations. These procedures depend upon the sensitivity of the information and the likelihood that a foreign group or domestic interest may want to obtain that information. If unclassified documents need to be destroyed prior to disposal, a commercially available cross-cut shredder should be used. A cross-cut shredder cuts the paper both vertically and horizontally. Destruction should not be entrusted to paper recycling vendors.

Sensitive Equipment

Sensitive equipment may be stolen so that it can be copied through reverse engineering. For some purposes, it may be sufficient to only gain access to the equipment for a brief period.

For example, a cleared company participated in an air show that took place overseas. The company shipped over an operational $250,000 multi-mode radar system that can be used on fighter aircraft. At the conclusion of the air show, the radar system was packaged for return shipping by company personnel, and the radar assembly was actually bolted to the shipping container. The shipping container was routed through a third country with the customs seals intact.

Upon being opened by company personnel, it was discovered that the radar was no longer bolted to the shipping container. As a result, the radar system was damaged beyond repair. It was determined that the radar was properly bolted down at the time it was prepared for shipment. It also was determined that the country that sponsored the air show was keenly interested in the radar's technology. It is not known whether the intruder's failure to re-bolt the radar was an oversight or was done deliberately to destroy evidence of whatever was done to examine the radar.

Lesson learned: The company did not really need to take the entire radar assembly to the air show. A mock-up without the internal mechanisms could have been set up along with photographs of the internal components.2

 National Counterintelligence Center, Counterintelligence News and Developments, March 1996.
2. James Norvell, "Assessing Foreign Collection Trends," Security Awareness Bulletin, Number 1-98, Department of Defense Security Institute.




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