Hopeful Spies: Searching For Espionage Tips on Google Is a Bad Idea

Sometimes, spycraft takes an unexpected turn

Typing on computer
Espionage is a sensitive matter. Not everyone gets that, evidently.
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There’s a notion that most people have of espionage that’s been shaped by decades’ worth popular culture depictions of that line of work. It’s one that involves furtive meetings, secretive language and shifting allegiances — and no small amount of danger. And spycraft in the real world does include all of these things — but it also includes some moments that are more Burn After Reading than 007.

An article by Patty Nieberg at Task & Purpose offers one window into what can happen when espionage goes very, very wrong. At the heart of the article is a former sergeant in the U.S. Army, Joseph Daniel Schmidt, who was arrested on espionage charges. Nieberg points to the federal government’s indictment of Schmidt, which features a couple of allegations that read more like a list of what not to do when attempting to trade national secrets to another government.

According to the indictment, Schmidt used Google to search for phrases like “countries with most negative relations with US” and “can you be extradited for treason.” He also visited a Reddit thread called “What Do Real Spies Do and How are they Recruited.” To be fair, some of these things taken on their own could be the results of genuine curiosity.

As Nieberg points out, Schmidt is also alleged to have created a file titled “Important Information to Share with Chinese Government” — and was accused of trying to share confidential information with officials in the Chinese military.

Schmidt’s case is not the only recent instance of someone accused of a crime whose online search history has worked against them. There’s the case of New Jersey senator Robert Menendez, which includes the senator allegedly searching for the price of a kilogram of gold. And the prosecution’s case in the murder trial of Brian Walshe included some highly suspicious searches Walshe made online for the best way to dispose of a body.

Espionage is a tricky thing — but it does seem like the genuine article can come closer in tone to Burn After Reading or The Informant! than to the adventures of James Bond or George Smiley.

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