Sunday, 5 June 2016

Secure Correspondence (Night's Black Agents, Dracula Dossier)

Just a quick one this week, to give Night's Black Agents Directors a nifty new way to correspond with agents in the field.

This is based on Stephen Leather's book Black Ops. One of these days I'm going to have to do a Not Quite Book Review on Leather; he's a lot of fun. British, used to be a journo for the Daily Mirror, been writing novel length fiction (meow) since 1997, and he's good at it, in a mannered and clever kind of way. Stephen King once said of horror maestro James Herbert that Herbert's work had a 'raw urgency,' the kind that grabbed you by the lapels and screamed in your face. By that scale, Leather stands in your way and speaks both loudly and firm, but doesn't quite reach the same level of urgency.

From a Night's Black Agents perspective Leather's most useful quality is that he writes both spy fiction and horror. Black Ops is pure spy fiction, starring Leather's recurring not-Bond, 'Spider' Shepherd, former SAS and policeman turned spy. What I want to talk about today is a neat little trick used by some of the characters in that novel to communicate, and how easy it would be to use that trick in game.

Secure communication via email is always a problem. Experts say that email is by its very nature insecure. Companies like Lavabit or SilentCircle used to say they could secure their transmissions, but they don't make that claim any more. SilentCircle went so far as to smash its own servers rather than hand them over to the authorities. The metadata - who sent the email, when, and to whom - is always vulnerable, SilentCircle's CEO pointed out as the servers went silent.

But what if there was no metadata?

Black Ops' spy handler has a simple procedure. Create an email identity - let's say cushing1913 - on a service like outlook. Make sure both the handler and the agent knows the identity and the password. Then, when messages need to be delivered, create an email, but don't send it; save it to drafts instead. Alert the other party that there's a message, say by text message. The other party logs on to the email address, checks drafts, reads the message and then deletes it.

Nothing was ever sent, therefore there is no metadata. By saving it in drafts you don't even need to specify a receiving email addy. Theoretically the email client can be hacked, but so long as the sender and receiver promptly check and destroy messages as soon as they can, there's a very small window of opportunity for hackers to intercept messages.

I very much doubt it's foolproof, but it's a fascinating glimpse into workable tradecraft. One of Leather's greatest strength is that he bothers to find out how things work, and then weaves that knowledge into the narrative without being too obvious about it. No long lectures, no technobabble, just a quick but thought-provoking glimpse into a working system, and then on with the show.

From a Director's perspective the utility is obvious. Anyone can create an outlook identity. It costs no money and very little time to set one up. Once you've done that, cushing1913 - it might be Dracula Dossier's Harker, Hopkins, or someone else - can send messages to agents in the field in real time. It's the perfect means of sending scanned documents, like anything from the Hawkins Papers, to the players. Or bits of the Dossier itself, or instructions, or what-have-you.

It's ingenious, simple, and free. What's not to like?


  1. I love this technique and used it myself to kick off my NBA campaign recently. The group's first patron was killed but before he died he left them the password to his gmail account (which I'd actually set up and populated) - his "Last Will" was in an unsent draft addressed to them and they also managed to rifle his Contacts and some saved Google Maps...

  2. This little piece of Tradecraft featured in the last series (the third) of 'Line of Duty'.