Most of what the alleged Russian spies discussed fell somewhere between the banal and the comic, like something out of “Get Smart.” There were three of them, the feds say. One was the point man. He got the goods. Another was his handler, who relayed the information to “Moscow Center.” And the last member of the triumvirate was a guy responsible for “relaying assignments from Moscow Center,” court records show. Theirs could be an inglorious assignment.
The United States isn’t apparently a great place to spy, they said. Not like the Middle East or Asia. Not with the FBI lurking here, ready to pounce. And don’t even get them started on fake identities. Alleged Russian spy Victor Podobnyy, an attache at the Russian mission to the United Nations, was allegedly upset that he never got one.
“The fact that I’m sitting with a cookie right now at the . . . chief enemy spot. F—!” he lamented. “Not one point of what I thought then, not even close.” He said he never expected to become James Bond or anything. But cookies? “Of course, I wouldn’t fly helicopters, but pretend to be someone else at a minimum.” Alleged spying pal Igor Sporyshev agreed: “I also thought at least I would go abroad with a different passport.”
On Monday, federal authorities unsealed an indictment charging the three men — Podobnyy, Sporyshev and Evgeny Buryakov — with conspiracy to act and acting as unregistered agents of a foreign government. Sporyshev and Podobnyy were protected under diplomatic immunity and have since returned to Russia, The Washington Post’s Adam Goldman reported. But Buryakov wasn’t so lucky and was in court on Monday.
Buryakov, who went by Zhenya and said he worked for a Russian-owned bank in Manhattan, also was involved in one of the few conversations that wasn’t totally clownish, but was, quite simply, terrifying to contemplate. He was interested, according to the indictment, in the “destabilization of the markets” and automated trading algorithms — “trading robots.”
In May 2013, Buryakov and another member of the ring discussed what an unnamed Russian news organization should ask New York Stock Exchange employees “for intelligence gathering purposes,” the indictment said. Chatting over the phone, Buryakov advised that it would be useful to know more about the workings of Exchange Traded Funds — popular investment vehicles for millions of Americans composed of baskets of stocks, such as those in the Dow Jones industrial average or the S&P 500, that are traded like stocks. According to studies, ETFs are approaching $5 trillion in assets.
Buryakov allegedly wanted to know “how they are used, the mechanisms of use for destabilization of the markets.”
“Mechanism — of — use — for — market — stabilization in modern conditions,” his conversation partner said back, presumably writing it down.
No, Buryakov corrected. “For destabilization…. Then you can ask them what they think about limiting the use of trading robots.”
This was a troublesome line of inquiry. The modern market is awash in such “trading robots,” which use algorithms to buy and sell financial product at speeds difficult to convey. “The acceleration of Wall Street cannot be separated from the automation of Wall Street,” wrote Mother Jones’s Nick Baumann. “Since the dawn of the computer age, humans have worried about sophisticated artificial intelligence … seizing control. But traders, in their quest for that million-dollar millisecond, have willingly handed over the reins. Although humans still run the banks and write the code, algorithms now make millions of moment-to-moment calls in the global markets.”
For evidence of what can go wrong when one of these bots goes crazy, look no further than Aug. 1, 2013. That was when a mid-size trading company named Knight Capital Group lost nearly $10 million per minute over the course of 45 minutes for a total of $440 million. The managers said it was a computer glitch, a misfiring algorithm, a complex computer program gone rogue.
“The company said the problems happened because of new trading software that had been installed,” the New York Times reported. “The event was the latest to draw attention to the potentially destabilizing effect of the computerized trading that has increasingly dominated the nation’s stock markets.”
Money is not the only thing at stake, experts say. So is national security. When a trading bot goes haywire, it could trigger something called a “flash crash,” like in May 2010. And given the market’s vulnerability to the domino effect, a malevolent algorithm could set off something worse — especially in the wrong hands. “Fears of algorithmic terrorism, where a well-funded criminal or terrorist organization could find a way to cause a major market crisis, are not unfounded,” wrote computer scientist John Bates, who designed some of these trading algorithms. “This type of scenario could cause chaos for civilization and profit for the bad guys and must constitute a matter of national security.”
Much of the fear concerns the speed with which something like this could happen. Investigators at first had difficulty piecing together what triggered the May 2010 “flash crash,” which caused the Dow to shed 1,000 points within minutes. So, the Atlantic reported, one data services firm called Nanex dredged forth the algorithms from the matrix of numbers by slowing them down — to the millisecond range. Only then did it see what it dubbed “The Knife.”
“Years of mistakes and bad decisions led to the 2008 collapse,” Baumann wrote. “But when the next crisis happens, it may not develop over months, weeks, or even days. It could take seconds.” Especially if spies of foreign governments, or, worse, terrorists, figure out how to do it.
It’s unclear from the indictment of the Russians how serious they were about the markets — or really anything else. Their curiosity, according to the indictment, extended not just to the market, but to casinos in Atlantic City, exports of Russian airplanes, the outlook for the energy industry, women employees in the banking industry, and even New York female college students. Most of those interests, however, left the Russian spies frustrated. They couldn’t execute.
Especially when it came to cozying up to college-aged women, from whom they curiously wanted to procure intelligence. “I have lots of ideas about such girls,” Sporyshev told Podobnyy at one point. “But these ideas are not actionable because they don’t allow you to get close enough. And in order to be close you either need to f— them or use other levers to influence them…. So when you tell me about girls, in my experience, it’s very rare that something workable will come of it.”