Jason Matthews on trade craft and social engineering

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Jason Matthews is a former CIA spy who used to run agents. He retired and became a novelist with books that have made the New York Times bestseller list. The most famous of his books is Red Sparrow, which has since been made into a film as well.

In his Talk at Google he talks about the spy game, but its also interesting in terms of thinking about social engineering in a wider sense.

Key outtakes:

  • Misdirection: Matthews would allow surveillance teams to tail him, so that other colleagues would be tail free
  • Playing into stereotype and using them as a judo move; Warsaw Pact men tended to believe a woman’s place was in the home and didn’t think of Matthews’ wife as a potential operator
  • Interesting points on the problems that intelligence agencies have in understanding the motivations of ‘non state actors’ such as religiously motivated terrorists
  • During the cold war, Russians who spied for the US generally didn’t get to spend any money they made, as they would only survive 18 months on average
  • China’s approach is much more long-term ‘picking up grains of sand on the beach’
  • The most dangerous threats in his opinion: Iranian nuclear programme for the set of unknowns that it creates, China as a short, medium and long term threat, Russia as an ongoing but less serious threat than China and ‘non state actors’

Matthews also took a New York Times journalist on the street to explain what surveillance infrastructure looked like now

“You never try to elude or escape from surveillance,” he explained. “You want to lull them into thinking that you’re not operational on this particular day. You want to calm the beast.”

Shadowing Jason Matthews, an Ex-Spy Whose Cover Identity Is Author | New York Times

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