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The Next Big Thing

The dead drop: USB drives a new trend in the art of spying

SCMP's espionage and covert ops expert Charley Lanyon risks it all to uncover the truth

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 March, 2015, 3:53pm
UPDATED : Friday, 13 March, 2015, 3:10pm

Above: Watch SCMP reporter explore dead drops in Hong Kong

There was a time when Hong Kong was a hotbed of spies: during the Cold War undercover agents from America, China, Britain and Russia were active here. Those days are over, but for Hong Kong’s espionage enthusiasts there is a new reason for some old-school spycraft: art.

Over the past five years, Berlin-based artist Aram Bartholl has reinvented the dead drop, for an ongoing global art project.         

On his website, Bartholl describes the project as an “anonymous, offline, peer to peer file-sharing network in public space,” and explains that he started it when he was artist in residence at the art and technology centre Eyebeam in Brooklyn, New York in 2010.

He hid five USB thumb drives around New York City, often embedded in concrete walls or curbs with just the tip sticking out. The idea was for people to plug the bit of the USB sticking out of the wall into their laptops and find... well, just about anything.  Each drive started out with just an explanation about the project, encouraging people to take or leave whatever files they chose. He also posted instructions on how to install their own dead drops on his website. The rest was up to the public, and they took to it avidly.

During the golden age of spying, the dead drop was an invaluable tool: a letter, picture or microfilm would be deposited in a secret hiding place — often a hollow rock, or false bit of brick — for another spy to pick up. That way information could be passed between agents without them ever having to meet in person and endanger their secret identities. In the era of email encryption, and satellite communication, it is doubtful that a dead drop is still a part of a modern spy’s repertoire, but thanks to Bartholl today, there are more than 1,500 active drops across the globe, on every continent save Antarctica.   

The project courted controversy after instructions for manufacturing methamphetamine, and schematics for making a bomb were found on drops in Europe

Each drop is catalogued in an online database, giving its date of installation, size and location coordinates. Imagine our excitement when we saw, ninth on the list and installed on March 6, Hong Kong’s very own dead drop, located on the first floor of the Ho Sin Hang Engineering Building at the Chinese University in Sha Tin. We went searching for it and were able to find it without too much trouble.

The Sha Tin drop is a bit different from the typical USB stick drops. It is an online dead drop: once you get in range you are able to join a small wi-fi network and get access to the drop. The site you see is pirate themed, with an explanation about how the project works, a chat area, an online forum and a place to upload and download files.

The project has courted controversy after instructions for how to manufacture methamphetamines, and schematics for making a bomb were found on drops in Europe. We were excited to see what kind of forbidden information Hongkongers were keen to share and, while there were certainly no bomb instructions, the contents were politically provocative: a photograph of the Lennon wall at the height of the Occupy Central protests, and a full length digital copy of Under the Dome, former TV presenter Chai Jing's documentary about pollution in China, which was recently removed from Chinese video sites.

We uploaded a few surprises ourselves but to reveal them here would hardly be good spying.