Espionage at the Molecular Level

In the world of espionage, privacy and security are top priorities to the success and safety of secret agents. Over the centuries, spies have utilized an evolving series of techniques to maintain the privacy of their confidential information.

In Roman times, authors of secret information tinkered with plant extracts to make invisible ink, and that clandestine art was used well into modern times. However, such inks remained invisible only until heat, special lights or chemical solutions were used, and that fact also made the information available to clever enemies.

Although cryptography and encryption furnished modern society with new ways to make information private, these security methods also became vulnerable to the clever adversary in this age of advanced computer technology.

Scientists now have found a new method to encrypt information in much the same way as the Enigma machine allowed the German army in World War II to encrypt and decrypt messages without fear of interception. Comprised of a series of rotors that produced a code, the sender could use the Enigma to encrypt a message and send it by radio. Only a recipient who knew the initial rotor settings could decrypt the message using their own Enigma machine. The discovery and eventual decoding of the German Enigma machine by Allied powers became a major factor in defeating the German Empire.

Presently, researchers are working with cryptography to synthesize specific chemicals that serve as highly secure passwords based on their atomic composition to produce a sort of chemical Enigma system.

In this case, the chemical Enigma system consists of a fluorescent amino acid structure (elemental components of various proteins) that can bind to various other compounds. With this “chemical device system,” the sender converts a message into a code, such as each letter representing a number, and dissolves that message into a specific chemical solution.

All the recipient of that message needs to do is add the same chemical and solvent as the sending device to produce the conditions which decrypt the message—much like a recipient in the past used the same rotor settings on the Enigma machine to reproduce readable text.

To be able to read this special chemically dissolved message with this molecular technique, a spy only needs to add the same chemical and solvent to produce a fluorescence emission to decipher the code and receive the message.

What all this technical jargon boils down to is that someone can hide a message within the molecular chemical sensor in a solution and allow that liquid to absorb into something like paper or cloth, and another person (another spy) could soak the paper or cloth in a liquid with the same chemical configuration to unlock the ciphered text, which is then read with special cryptography.

I can envision a spy using a very simple eyedrop solution to drip a message onto a napkin and that would allow another spy to easily retrieve that napkin, dissolve it in a solution and then decode the message. 

What makes this spy tool so advantageous is that there are so many chemical compounds available that can be fluoresced to hide a message within a chemical compound. The important key is that both the encryptor and the decryptor must know the secret chemical reaction required to allow the message to be retrieved.

Scientists believe there are large numbers of compounds available that could be chosen for the reaction sequence. The important key is that the chemical methodology to encrypt and decrypt should be applied with molecules that have a high level of structural complexity, and the chemical process should be simple, robust and predictably reproducible.

As a final layer of security, the chemicals used should be as thermally and chemically inert as possible—what scientists call “a one-pot reaction” to unlock the chemically-imbedded message.

I think I have the beginnings of a plot for a new short story here!

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

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The Legality of Familial DNA Searches

As a runner, I’ve often told my female runner friends, “Don’t run alone!” There have been cases of solo female runners being attacked on the lovely running trails we have in and around the city I live in. That advice was exactly what the father of Karina Vetrano gave to his daughter when she went out for a run along the wetlands near Howard Beach, Queens, New York. She was strangled to death and sexually assaulted that day during her run.

The case became an investigator’s nightmare with little evidence except for a stranger’s DNA on the victim’s hands, throat and cellphone. The DNA did not produce a match in any national database and the crime remained unsolved.

Frustration from the local investigative authorities caused them to seek approval to use an unusual search method called “familial DNA searches” to scour the criminal databases to identify likely close relatives of the offender to generate an evidence trail. The New York State Commission on Forensic Evidence, a member panel appointed by the governor, even developed a seven-member subcommittee to develop standards for using such familial DNA searches.

Although the perpetrator was identified eventually through other circumstantial evidence and later by an actual DNA match, the high-profile case spotlighted the potential use of familial DNA searches when DNA could not be linked directly to a suspect.

Such familial DNA searches were first introduced in Britain in 2002 and used for the first time in the United States in a California murder case in 2008, followed one year later as an evidence tool in a Colorado case. Such searches have now become a forensic application in eight states, and it has produced a helpful crime-solving trail in at least a dozen cases in the States over the last ten years. Familial DNA searches now represent a new avenue of evidence gathering in the world of forensic science.

This evidence technique uses a database “hit” of a close relative for unidentified DNA to lead authorities to a possible suspect. The close familial match to a perpetrator’s relative is less of a solid piece of evidence, and rather it represents another lead in cases to a likely suspect.

DNA testing remains the most reliable tool in forensic investigations and has been used not only to identify suspects in criminal cases but also to exonerate the wrongfully accused and convicted. As DNA technology expands from the collection and matching of samples through law enforcement agencies and evolves into DNA collections in the private sector, major concerns have been voiced regarding privacy issues and the potential for misuse.

A recent high profile cold case, labeled as the Golden State Killer, perplexed authorities in California for over four decades. Unidentified DNA that had been linked to at least a dozen murders remained unmatched to DNA in any national database. Authorities finally were permitted to search online genealogy services to match the DNA of distant relatives to narrow down the search for the perpetrator and to eventually link other evidence to identify the killer.

Such online searches are controversial to say the least, and opponents of the techniques site the Fourth Amendment for prohibition of unreasonable search and the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause as reason to prevent use of familial DNA searches.

This crime-solving technique, although used in some particularly vexing cases, has not been thoroughly tested in the courts as yet, and it will be interesting to see how the legal issues surrounding this relatively new forensic tool evolve.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

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CARFENTANIL – A New National Threat!

I’ve written blogs before about America’s love of opioid medications for pain control and the resulting opioid epidemic in this country. Inevitably, effective pain medications tend to be abused and then become more difficult to obtain legally by prescription, and they eventually make their way to “street drug” status.

Americans statistically are the largest consumers of the world’s natural and synthetic opioids, and it’s estimated that between 100 to 150 Americans are dying from overdoses of these powerful pain killers every day. Many of these drugs are obtained on the black market and the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis was instituted last year to address this crisis, which has been labeled a national emergency.

The synthetic opioid medication fentanyl is one of those prescription medications highly abused as a black market, street drug. It’s very potent—approximately 100 times more potent than morphine—and the prescribed dose to be an effective pain killer is small. In recent years, the availability of fentanyl on the streets as a black market drug has left a trail of death in its path. Just a few grains—a mere two (2) milligrams—can be fatal to a human.

Now, there is an even more potent synthetic opioid called carfentanil that has legitimate medical uses but has evolved into the latest black market, synthetic opioid readily available on the Internet for purchase.

Carfentanil was first synthesized in 1974 by Janssen Pharmaceuticals, but it was never approved for use in humans due to its super potency as a pain killer and sedative. It’s approximately 100 times more potent than fentanyl (and about 10,000 times more potent than morphine). A mere speck of the drug is enough to kill a person.

The United States government allows for the legal use of carfentanil under its Schedule II prescription status ONLY for veterinary use to sedate large animals—such as elephants. A simple Google search, however, of “synthetic opioid and Chinese pharmacies” results in the ability to purchase 100 grams of this highly potent drug without a prescription for about $750, to be shipped “by discreet courier” overnight. That 100-gram amount of carfentanil would translate to be enough drug to cause a staggering five million overdoses.

Some have labeled carfentanil as a weapon of mass destruction because of its easy availability and its lethal potential in small doses. My first novel, Lethal Medicine, addressed the flow of illegal drugs from China in its primary plot, and to this day that book still imparts a relevant message. However, the drugs of today seem to continue their flow from China, but now with enhanced ease and even greater national harm.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

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Gabapentin – The Next Drug of Abuse?

Gabapentin was introduced in 1993 and marketed as the brand name Neurontin to control epileptic seizures as well as to help control nerve pain due to nerve damage. It is an ideal drug for nerve pain, first as a primary drug and also as an additive drug to enhance the pain-relieving effects of opiates for chronic nerve pain. It has low abuse potential on its own, although it does produce withdrawal symptoms if dosing is suddenly discontinued.

This characteristic of withdrawal indicates that the drug has important aspects of physical addiction. It also hints that it was destined at some point to become a target of abuse. Therefore, gabapentin might be an excellent drug to incorporate into a future plot when a subtle addictive drug might be needed. Although not lethal in itself, it can easily be disruptive to normal living and clear thinking.

In 2004, the drug became available as a generic version and, by then, was prescribed more widely for off-label uses that included restless leg syndrome and hot flashes. It also was used to minimize the nerve pain and restless leg effects of withdrawal from opiates and to prevent the seizures and convulsions common with withdrawal from alcohol and benzodiazepines.

More recently, gabapentin has become a common street drug to enhance the high of illicit opiates, and is often used to cut heroin to increase its euphoric effects.

Prison inmates who are prescribed gabapentin to treat various addiction withdrawal symptoms report that oral use produces a calming effect and relaxes inhibitions much like marijuana. Inmates often sell their prescription supply to other inmates who crush the pills to snort them, producing what is described as a similar high to that of cocaine.

As a street drug, gabapentin is known as “morontin” and “gabbies” and the recreational use of this prescription drug is increasing on an international scale. Domestically, prescribed gabapentin is on the rise due to its effectiveness in treating nerve pain, but it has been increasingly diverted for illicit use. In December of 2016, the Ohio State Board of Pharmacy found that gabapentin was the number one most prescribed medication, even surpassing the highly prescribed oxycodone.

The most common symptoms of overuse include dizziness, drowsiness, mental confusion, speech difficulties, double vision and loss of coordination.

Gabapentin is considered an unrestricted drug, meaning that it has no controlled designation by the DEA for prescribing standards. This fact, and the need for the large dosing to control nerve pain such as back pain, makes this drug more available for diversion to be sold on the black market. I suspect that at some point in the future gabapentin will be a more highly controlled drug; and, if current abuse trends continue to escalate, this drug could likely become the next opiate-crisis type of drug.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

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Novichok = A Political Poison?

I generally don’t blog about anything related to politics, religion or sex. However, a fascinating, yet horrifying, incident occurred recently in Salisbury, England that intrigued me.

Sergei Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer who reportedly worked for years undercover as a spy for Britain’s MI6 (the British equivalent of the US CIA), was the victim of an apparent assassination attempt along with his daughter by use of a military grade nerve agent.

There is controversy between British and Russian officials regarding the source of the agent used. A Russian representative states that the nerve agent was developed in the West, specifically in the US and the UK. However, a chemical weapons expert with a security group in London states that only Russia had the ability to produce the substance. Other reports indicate that the components to make Novichok may be available at manufacturing plants designed to produce fertilizers and pesticides.

The lethal substance in question is called Novichok, a military grade nerve agent developed by Soviet scientist Vil Mirzayanov in the early 1970s and produced by Russia in the 1980s under a weapons program called Folio. The chemical was designed for use in bombs for mass killings in potential battlefield warfare scenarios.

It was developed to achieve four primary objectives: 1) to be undetectable—at least by 1980 NATO chemical detection standards, 2) to defeat NATO chemical protective gear, 3) to be safer to handle than similar lethal agents, and 4) to circumvent the Chemical Weapons Convention list of controlled/banned weapons.

Although there are reports of at least 14 deaths of Russian spies in the UK between 2003 and 2016, I’ll leave the politics and spy ramifications to the experts and watch as the scientists follow the evidence trail to establish blame for this incident.

Let’s focus for a few moments on the chemical itself and what a fascinating substance it is for use in a potential international thriller novel.

The Novichok nerve agent (which translates in Russian to the English word “newcomer”) is considered to be up to ten times more lethal than the nerve agent VX used to assassinate Kim Jong Un’s brother in the Fall of 2017.

Like many other so-called “elegant lethal substances,” Novichok is a colorless, odorless poison that can be produced in many forms—a gel, a fine powder, a gas or a liquid. Those facts lend to the substance’s versatility as a murder weapon. A potential drawback is that it is a binary agent, meaning that two separate, non-toxic components (called precursors) must be mixed together to convert them into the active nerve agent. This is advantageous in that those handling the agent do not accidentally poison themselves in the process of manipulating the delivery device for the lethal agent.

The initial effects of Novichok are immediate and they include a dangerous slowing of the heart beat and constriction of the airways. Death is usually attributed to asphyxiation.

Longer-lasting, systemic effects may be delayed for up to 18 hours and include chronic muscle weakness, liver damage, epilepsy and continued difficulty with mental focus. There are several antidote drugs that can be used to prevent death (including atropine and diazepam), but permanent injury often occurs even after antidotes are used.

The United Kingdom contends that this assassination attempt was a deliberate act of Russian aggression to continue to silence defected Russian spies. At the very least, UK officials alternately state that Russia has lost control of its supply of Novichok.

Either way, this incident presents yet another interesting idea for a method of murder in developing plot ideas for a next best-selling thriller.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

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Aconite – A Two-Edged Sword!

Many botanical compounds have important medical uses, and some of modern medicine’s most important drugs were derived initially from plant sources.

However, some of these botanical compounds have a very narrow dosage range between a therapeutic effect and toxicity. This tight range of beneficial action is alternately referred to as the Therapeutic Index or the Therapeutic Window.

This concept certainly applies to a very interesting botanical that has been used throughout the ages and is present today in many homeopathic preparations.

Aconite is the usual reference to aconitum, a plant genius that resembles wild parsley or horseradish. There are 350 species of aconite that exist around the world, 170 in China alone. Many are found throughout Asia, Africa and Europe. More than 100 species are found in the temperate climates of both the United States and Canada.

Throughout the ages, aconite alternately has been referred to as monkshood, wolf’s bane, leopard’s bane, devil’s helmet and blue rocket.

In modern homeopathic medicine, aconite is used for general malaise, undefined weakness and to stimulate poor circulation. People with numbness in the extremities or poor circulation (as in cold hands and feet) use aconite preparations to stimulate circulation, hence its colloquial reference name of “blue rocket” to the variety that produces beautiful deep blue flowers. In the same way, aconite preparations are used to alleviate joint pain, inflammation and certain skin diseases by stimulating blood circulation throughout the body.

The mechanism of action appears to be the increased production of nitric oxide in the human body. There has been considerable interest recently in nitric oxide supplementation for athletes involved in performance sports to increase their exercise intensity and endurance.

Since aconite is readily absorbed through the skin, topical aconite preparations (liniments, creams and lotions) are available that are used as “counterirritants,” products that stimulate local blood circulation and produce localized warmth to relieve joint pain and the leg pain from sciatica.

However, it should be noted that aconite is a highly poisonous plant and small amounts of the pure plant are highly toxic. So the above-mentioned preparations contain very small, very defined quantities of aconite.

As little as 2mg of pure aconite or one gram of the plant can cause death! Even slight contact with the flowers can cause the fingers of one’s hand to become numb—a typical example of the therapeutic effect of aconite progressing to a toxic side effect with excessive exposure.

The therapeutic, as well as the lethal, compound in aconite is aconitine, a toxic alkaloid that generally accounts for about 1.5% of the dry weight of the plant.

Safe dosing of aconite tincture depends on meticulous processing of the plant using everything but the root, and pounding it into a pulp that can be pressed and mixed in alcohol to extract the aconitine alkaloid. Straining and diluting the resulting product will produce the desired homeopathic therapy, and a more concentrated tincture produces an interesting poison if you’re attempting to develop an unusual murder plot idea.

Symptoms of aconite poisoning include nausea, vomiting, sweating, breathing difficulties and heart problems. Death usually results from paralysis of the respiratory system or cardiac arrest.

Although aconite can be lethal when applied to the skin, smaller doses are deadly when taken orally, and any oral dose beyond the therapeutic range will cause burning and tingling of the lips, tongue, mouth and throat. Numbness of the throat will follow, with difficulty in speaking, blurred vision and an interesting green-yellow vision distortion.

This last side effect would make for an interesting clue in a murder scene when deciding to use an aconite preparation to kill off a character in your murder mystery.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

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Exploiting Computer Chip Flaws

In my Jon Masters thriller series, my protagonist Jon has a friend named Ed Ochoa. Ed is a computer genius and often does some cyber-magic to produce secure, and usually unavailable, information that helps Jon out of a variety of life and death situations. Since I only have rather basic computer skills, I’m often searching the Internet for interesting tidbits of cyber information to dazzle my readers with just enough “computer geek” terms to make the story work and to make it as believable as possible.

Jon’s friend Ed often inserts bits of malware into unsuspecting computers to secure information that should remain . . . well, SECURE! Ed’s help for my protagonist Jon is invaluable because Ed’s cyber-magic allows Jon to cut legal corners and secure information that not only saves Jon’s life at various moments, but also saves the world a good bit of global grief from time to time.

Click on either of these book covers for a story synopsis.

In that spirit, I was most interested to read a recent article which detailed how a team of security experts uncovered flaws in the more commonly used, and most up-to-date, computer chips. These flaws allow hackers (such as Ed) to lift passwords, documents and other supposedly secure data from smartphones, PCs and cloud computing services.

There are two specific flaws, called Meltdown and Spectre, that are causing so much concern in the computer world this year. Both involve critical vulnerabilities in today’s computer processors by allowing an interloper to read secret data from stored files in different ways than before.

Both Meltdown and Spectre take advantage of the way computer chips are designed. In and of themselves, Meltdown and Spectre are not malware but rather basic flaws in computer chip technology that allow malicious hackers to use malware to exploit these critical vulnerabilities.

I thought I’d share this information, especially for writers who rely on any form of computer hacking in their storylines. You can be sure that I will tuck this information safely away (alas, maybe not on my computer) for use in a future thriller plot.

Meltdown breaks down the most fundamental walls between user applications and the operating system such that an attacker could use malicious software to easily access computer memory for sensitive data.

Spectre, on the other hand, breaks down the walls between different applications to allow an attacker to trick programs that are considered safe and error-free into releasing their secrets. My computer-savvy character Ed does just that by introducing “Trojan Horse” technology into secure databanks not only to access information but to trick the computers into sending back updated information on a regular basis.

According to what I’ve read about malware that can take advantage of the Spectre chip flaw, the safety checks of accepted best practices for computer security significantly increase the cyber-attack area (the computer chip data surface area, if you will). This makes computer applications more susceptible to the Spectre flaw. It’s said that, although the Spectre flaw is harder to exploit than Meltdown, it is also more difficult to mitigate without specific software patches.

So, for a more believable storyline that may involve computer hacking (or “shortcuts” as my protagonist Jon and his friend Ed would call them), check out Meltdown and Spectre for more tips on computer vulnerabilities.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!

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