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The Spies of Comic Con

Hollywood is increasingly implementing real spycraft into blockbuster movies and TV shows.

by Dave Maass
Jul 22 2019, 10:56am

Image: Quinn P. Smith/Getty

Asked what cosplay he would choose if assigned to infiltrate San Diego Comic Con, the former CIA officer smirked.

“It would be so easy to be a spy at Comic Con,” Jason Hanson said. “I’d be Chewbacca, because then I don’t even have to really do anything, because I’d be totally covered by a 100 percent mask and nobody’s going to question it.”

While the author of Spy Secrets That Can Save Your Life may be a veteran of the clandestine service, that seemed like a rookie answer for Comic Con. Chewbacca cosplayers are rare: the costumes are expensive and sweaty and stick out like a Cylon at a Star Trek meetup. More importantly, a wookiee can’t take five furry strides on the exhibition floor without being stopped for a photo.

“But you see that’s the beauty of it,” he says. “If I take my picture with you, I can plant bugs on you, I can pick your pocket, I can do whatever.”

We’re at an after party for may seem like an unusual panel for San Diego Comic Con: ”Spy and Espionage Tech: Evolution and Storytelling.

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Image: Dave Maass

While two blocks away, convention goers lined up around the corner to get into a joint Variety/YouTube Originals party, Hanson and his fellow panelists—a cybersecurity contractor, a former CIA disguise master, and the amateur DNA analyst credited with cracking the Golden State Killer case—mingled with members of Dent the Future, a club that put on the event.

The panel and party were sponsored by Accenture, which was unavailable for comment for this story.

Comic Con may be best known for its Hall H celebrity guests and blockbuster announcements, out in the wings of the convention center, an adventurous badge-holder will sometimes find panels that fall outside of tradition. Several years back Comic Con introduced “Future Tech Live,” an exhibition space featuring virtual reality, augmented reality, and blockchain products. Dent the Future founder Steven Broback had a hand in launching that in 2015, when it was called VR Con. In previous years, Broback brought jetpack inventor Richard Browning and stuntwoman Zoë Bell to discuss the tech of Iron Man.

With Epix launching its Batman prequel Pennyworth and Archer teasing its 11th season, Broback curated this year’s Dent the Future panel to delve into modern tech used in criminal investigations, cybersecurity, and espionage.

“Many of the people who attend our talks and demos at SDCC are storytellers themselves, and they are looking for ideas on how to depict contemporary science and technology realistically,” Broback says. “Plus they are looking to be inspired by new and emerging technologies that they can incorporate into their works.”

Attendees lined up 45 minutes in advance for the spycraft panel and filled the nearly 500-seat room. They audibly wowed and applauded after each panelist revealed their tips for creating realistic spy plots.

Joshua Ray, global cyber defense lead for Accenture Security, started by explaining how the hacking group Shadow Brokers dumped the malware tools developed by what is believed to be the NSA onto the dark web. He drew a parallel to Michael Keaton’s villain in Spider Man: Homecoming, who salvaged and reappropriated Chitauri technology left over from the The Avengers’ Battle of New York.

“When they started off they didn’t necessarily have to use regular guns to rob the neighborhood bank; they now had access to this advanced alien technology that they could use to take on Spider Man and actually go after Tony Stark’s technology,” Ray said. “Being able to leverage that is as a force multiplier to leap-frog the stages of development is what we’re seeing across the whole criminal element.”

Hanson, who runs a five-day spy training seminar on a 320-acre campus in Utah, went over some of his favorite techniques. He talked about special gasoline additives that can be used to track a vehicle and the ways you can plant bugs on common grocery store items that you know a target regularly purchases. He also gleefully described a wand that the CIA can use to gather the unique identifiers of burner phones from 20 yards away. He suggested that intelligence agencies might allow a church to be bombed (after fabricating a reason to evacuate it) to avoid exposing how it’s tracking terrorist suspects.

Obviously, some of the panelists’ claims invited skepticism. Barbara Rae-Venter, a retired IP attorney who became a genetics enthusiast, drew applause for her role in using familial DNA in the GEDmatch database to narrow down 62 suspects in string of murders in the 1970s and 1980s to one septuagenarian. But, after Rae-Venter encouraged people to submit their own DNA in order to solve crimes, a woman in the audience raised serious concerns about the privacy implications of these databases and the potential for abuse by police. Rae-Venter, a self-described William Gibson fan, responded that the system has clear disclosures on how the database may be used and so she sees no privacy violation there. Motherboard recommends that you not get your DNA sequenced by large commercial companies.

Perhaps no one in the world is more familiar with the crossover between science fiction and spycraft than the final panelist, Jonna Mendez, the former CIA chief of disguise, who described how she and her husband (whose work freeing hostages in Iran was dramatized in the Ben Affleck film Argo) studied the mask-making techniques from some of Hollywood’s top monster makers.

Later, at the reception, I asked her whether disguises could even be effective in an age of advanced face recognition. She said she first encountered face recognition at the CIA in 1985, and at the time was able to defeat the technology 80 percent of the time. Now she’s not so sure. The only thing she knows is that the CIA cleared her new book, The Moscow Rules, for publication and you can take what you will from that.

“If it’s not classified, it’s either changed dramatically or they don’t use it,” Mendez says.

Then she got out her phone and showed off her favorite Harry Potter cosplay pics she shot earlier that day.