From dead drops to laser espionage, discover the craft throughout the decades

When it comes to craftsmanship – the techniques and technology used in modern espionage – we often think straight to the not always entirely accurate (or plausible) rocket-firing cigarettes, grenade launchers, and laser-emitting watches from the spy movies and shows we grew up with. Yet in real life, while some crafts are just as fiendishly clever, impressively high-tech, and factually out there as the gadgets and gizmos Hollywood dreamed up, other examples represent far simpler, trusted techniques that allow agents to gather and share information efficiently and discreetly , with only nerves of steel and a cool facade.

As Ben Macintyre, author of the New York Times bestseller, on the ITVX psychodrama A spy among friends explains, the craft practiced by agents like Philby and Elliott is “not a James Bond-y craft. These are the very subtle signals and techniques that are essential to being a spy and living as a spy. That’s actually how it’s done.”

When Soviet agent Arnold “Otto” Deutsch first recruited Kim Philby as a double agent in 1934, it was these rudimentary spy skills he shared — how and where to leave messages, how to tell if a phone was bugged, how to spot it and lose a tail. Here we examine how crafting evolved and evolved from the Philby and Elliott era, and what age-old techniques are still used by modern agents.

Hidden communication and dead drops

While we might associate espionage with the suave special agents of the 1960s, it’s actually one of the oldest professions in the world. Covertly gathering information about your enemies—or your friends, as Philby did—has been practiced since ancient times, even finding a mention in the Bible when Joshua secretly sent two Hebrews to scout the walled city of Jericho before attacking it.

Although the nature of espionage has not changed, many of its accoutrements have evolved remarkably as technology has advanced.

On the show, Philby (Guy Pearce) receives messages from the KGB written in invisible ink

(ITVX Exclusive – A Spy Among Friends)

Take, for example, the way spies had to send the information they gathered back to their henchmen. One of the early (and slightly schoolboyish) methods was to use invisible ink, made from a complex combination of chemicals and liquids, to scribble messages between the lines of harmless letters that could be made visible with heat or steam – in A spy among friendsPhilby receives a message on a packet of cigarettes which he has to heat up with a lighter in order to be able to read it. In the 1950s, the KGB developed a faster method – vanishing inksticks – which are widely used today.

Another key crafting technique is the “dead drop” – where you leave a message or information at a pre-arranged location for your contact without actually meeting in person (face-to-face meetings are known as “live drops”). “Covered” dead-drop gear includes the dead-drop spike – a small, spiked, waterproof canister that can be pushed into soft ground. While “overt” dead-drop gear is designed to look like ordinary, harmless items that people wouldn’t give a second thought to – like a hollow bolt, which in turn could be used to store vital information inside A spy among friendsVia the beer mat handed to him by a waiter, Philby receives a message from Russia that effortlessly undermines the surveillance he is subjected to and provides vital information for his next move.

A message written on an innocuous coaster brings vital information to a hard-pressed Philby

(ITVX Exclusive – A Spy Among Friends)

Another popular method of communication, used decades before today’s burner phones and satcoms, was radio. Spies could tune into “Number Stations”—shortwave radio stations that broadcast a series of coded messages that sounded like gibberish, but with the right cipher could convey vital information to them when they were behind enemy lines. Likewise in A spy among friends Philby uses a book of poetry with a cipher to encrypt and decrypt covert messages.

With the use of a cipher, a book of poetry becomes a key piece of Philby’s spy kit

(ITVX Exclusive – A Spy Among Friends)

More sophisticated methods were later developed, including microdot technology, which allowed the user to shrink a text to four hundredths of its original size. More recently, steganography — the practice of concealing a hidden message within other data, often an image — has been used by a network of Russian “sleeper spies” living under false identities in America who, according to the FBI, have shared over 100 digital photos with embedded Text before her arrest in 2010.

surveillance tactics

One of the regular jobs of spies is taking photographs – whether of documents, military equipment, inventions or people. Cameras were developed that could be hidden in wristwatches, cigarette cases, and even buttons. One of the spies’ greatest problems was ensuring that the film was exposed correctly, which was often extremely difficult in the rather difficult circumstances.

Spies also need to eavesdrop on their targets, and microphones and transmitters have been hidden not only in somewhat predictable objects like lights and telephones, but also in bizarre objects like fake dog poo and the bodies of dead rats. These transmitters could also be hidden on the spy’s body itself. From everyday objects such as hollowed out books and even the soles of shoes with advancing technology, they were used to transmit private conversations to a spy’s superior.

On the show, MI6 agent Nicholas Philby (Damian Lewis) practices – and is subject to – surveillance

(ITVX Exclusive – A Spy Among Friends)

Since then, technology has advanced to make monitoring even easier. Even if agents can’t get a microphone near their target, they can point a “laser spy” device at the office or room they’re in. These can detect the tiny vibrations on window panes caused by voices, record them and turn them back into audible speech.


Depending on the mission, spies also have to act as saboteurs and blow things up. Some of the most sophisticated bomb camouflage included books, tin cans, fruit, cigarette cases, forged logs, and once again—the old favorite of spy equipment manufacturers—dog poo.

Concealed explosives were also used successfully during World War II with the invention of “explosive coal”: a lump of coal (and later painted plaster of Paris) whose center was drilled out and filled with plastic explosive and a detonator. These would be hidden in the coal supply of a ship, factory or generator in German hands. The coal would go into the blast furnace, cause a huge explosion and set the coal store on fire – seriously and helpfully making the Germans paranoid about their coal.

(Really) hidden weapons

Espionage is, of course, a dangerous business, and when caught red-handed, spies face interrogation and torture, followed by decades in prison or even execution. So evading capture, even by the most extreme means imaginable, was something they had to be equipped for.

During the Cold War, spies were armed with all manner of secret weapons, including tiny pistols hidden in items such as torches, gloves, lipsticks, and whistles. Often the pistols could only fire one shot, so you needed a steady hand and a lot of luck. If they failed to shoot themselves out, their last resort was to take a suicide pill. These too had to be hidden as it would have been very distressing to be found with such a pill and because they represented a vital if harrowing last resort. Cyanide capsules were hidden in the temples of glasses that the wearer could casually chew to release the poison, or in the collars of shirts so they could be quickly located and taken before the enemy knew.

Of course, spies are sometimes tasked with taking out their enemies. When the Bulgarian dissident journalist Georgy Markov was hospitalized in 1978, he recalled feeling a sharp pain on the back of his right thigh at a bus stop. He looked behind him and saw a man picking up an umbrella from the ground. The man hurriedly crossed the street and got into a taxi, which then drove away. Markov died four days later. After an autopsy that revealed a tiny 1.7mm pellet lodged in Markov’s leg, it was theorized that the umbrella could have been used to fire ricin – a highly toxic substance – from the tip of the umbrella into his body.

Back to old school

Despite all the hi-tech developments in the craft over the years, some old-fashioned methods still exist. In the ’80s, US CIA officer-turned-KGB double-agent Aldruch Ames used a mailbox to communicate – a horizontal chalk mark over the USPS logo signaled that a meeting was required. Russian agents used invisible ink, as well as bursts of data that broadcast over shortwave radio. While in 2010 British spies rumbled into Russia when they were caught with a fake rock containing a microphone and transmitter.

So it seems that the likes of Elliott and Philby, with their understated and even low-fi crafting techniques, are still spawning imitators decades later. That must be the mark of a good spy, whatever his intentions.

New ITVX show A spy among friends is a gripping six-part psychological drama that explores the real-life story of MI6 agents Nicholas Elliott (Damian Lewis) and Kim Philby (Guy Pearce), whose relationship – professional and personal – implodes when double agent Philby’s decades-long duplicity is exposed. Exploring the deeply polarized politics of the time, the complex machinations of MI6 in an ever-changing world, and the incredible personal betrayal that lies at the heart of it all, this fascinating study of how friendship, trust and loyalty can be manipulated is your new Must watch.

A spy among friends, stream free here on ITVX From dead drops to laser espionage, discover the craft throughout the decades


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