Look at all these birds that have been accused of espionage

September 3, 2013

Run! (Universal Pictures)

So, Egyptian authorities detained a stork on suspicions that its wildlife tracking anklet was a surveillance device. But that poor stork wasn't the only bird to run afoul of suspicions of avian spying in recent years.

Just in July, a kestral was detained by Turkish authorities because a metal ring on its foot had the words "24311 Tel Avivunia Israel" engraved on it -- prompting the residents who found the bird to turn it over to the local governor as a possible avian agent of the state of Israel. The kestral was freed after an X-ray showed that the bird was not embedded with surveillance equipment, according to local reports.

Similarly, in May of 2012 a dead common European bee-eater was suspected of engaging in espionage by Turkish locals because of an Israel stamped anklet -- the locals reportedly called the local police after deciding the bird's nostrils were unusually large and might carry microchip for Israeli surveillance. An official at the Turkish agricultural ministry reportedly told the BBC, "it took some effort to persuade local police that the little bee-eater posed no threat to national security."

In December 2012, Sudanese officials reportedly said they had discovered an Israeli secret agent that was a vulture. They claimed the bird was fitted with GPS and solar-powered equipment capable of broadcasting images via satellite. Israeli officials acknowledged the bird had been tagged with Israeli equipment but insisted it was being used to study migration patterns, not spy on Sudan. Feathers were also ruffled in Saudi Arabia in 2011 by an endangered griffon vulture because its wildlife tracking GPS transmitter bore the name of Tel Aviv University.

And not to be left out, Iranian authorities claimed to have detained not one, but two, spy pigeons near the country's nuclear processing plants in 2008.

Here's a pigeon from World War I wearing a camera. (German Federal Archive)
Here's a pigeon from World War I wearing a camera. (German Federal Archive)

While it seems unlikely that any of these specific birds were engaged in surveillance, the Iranian case seems the most plausible because pigeons have actually been deployed in surveillance capacities before -- most notably through the use of pigeon cameras to spy on military bases in the First and Second World Wars.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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Andrea Peterson | September 3, 2013