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5 Spy Tunnels From Around the World

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Spies have more tools at their disposal than bribery, blackmail, and black bag jobs. They’ve also got pickaxes. When going undercover isn’t enough, they go underground to ply their trade. Here are five spy operations that involved digging tunnels to get the job done.

1. Operation SILVER

Post-World War II Vienna was divided into four zones, each controlled by either the British, the Americans, the French, or the Soviets. (A central district was jointly managed, with governance rotating monthly between the four countries.) Put four of the world’s mightiest powers in one city, and you’re going to get some major league espionage.

The Brits ran the best operation. The CIA had only been established in 1947, and was still mismanaged and on the learning curve. (The agency we know today wouldn’t be hammered into form until Walter Bedell Smith took charge in 1950.) MI6 had been fishing around Vienna and eventually discovered the communications lines used by the Soviets to talk to Moscow. Out came the hardhats and jackhammers.

MI6 opened a haberdashery as a front, and from the back room of the shop set about digging a seventy-foot tunnel to the Soviet transmission lines. The wiretap was eventually a success, but so too was the clothing store. (MI6 doesn’t do anything halfway, as James Bond has repeatedly demonstrated.) The store was so successful, in fact, that foot traffic made effective tradecraft all but impossible. The shop soon boarded up its doors.

2. Operation GOLD

The CIA recognized a good thing when they saw it, and wanted in on the wiretapping game. After all, if it worked in Vienna, why not Berlin? While making preparations for the operation, CIA officers uncovered a major defect in their own cryptography equipment. In addition to transmitting coded messages across landlines, American devices transmitted trace echoes of the unencoded messages as well. This problem was quickly solved, but led to a greater discovery: Soviet encryption devices had the same defect, and the Soviets didn’t know it. For signals intelligence specialists, this was like tapping a geyser of crude oil.

Operation GOLD was a joint project between U.S. and British intelligence officers. Much like Vienna, Berlin was divided into zones. Allen Dulles, the master of espionage and 5th Director of Central Intelligence, got a tip on the exact location of the Soviet transmission lines in Berlin. To get at those lines, a storage warehouse was constructed as a front for the operation. A 1,500-foot tunnel was excavated twenty feet beneath the soles of Soviet boots. 500,000 calls were recorded.

What the Americans didn’t know was that British intelligence had a traitor in their midst. Before the tunnel had even been constructed, George Blake alerted the KGB of the CIA’s plans. Notably, however, the KGB never alerted Soviet authorities of the tunnel’s existence for fear of revealing Blake’s identity. (He was far more valuable in British Intelligence than in prison.) Eventually, however, the Soviets “discovered” the tunnel and expressed public outrage and righteous indignation at such an egregious disregard for international law.

(For whatever reason, this project is still classified. Because who knows what might trigger World War 2 ½.)

3. Operation MONOPOLY

In 1977, the Soviet Union began construction on a new embassy complex in Washington D.C. and the FBI had an idea. Since the days of Hoover, penetrating and bugging foreign embassies was an FBI specialty, and this opportunity simply couldn’t be passed up. The plan involved taking advantage of the chaos and cacophony of major construction, and burrowing a tunnel across town and beneath the Soviet embassy. It was, perhaps, the most audacious act of SIGINT-related espionage ever attempted.

Operation MONOPOLY was a joint project between the FBI and National Security Agency. Apartments were purchased to monitor Soviet construction, and another to hide the drill team. Twenty-plus years and hundreds of millions of dollars later, the tunnel project was abandoned. If nothing else, there was the question of which rooms, exactly, they would be able to spy on from beneath the embassy. According to the Spy Museum in Washington, a Special Agent with the FBI summed it up like this: “We had the plans [of the embassy], but you don't know what a room is used for. It might end up being a Xerox room or a storage room. What you want is a coffee room where people talk.”

Even had the spy tunnel gone into full operation, it would have been a futile and counterproductive effort. Robert Hanssen, an FBI agent working for the Russians, revealed everything about the tunnel to Russian intelligence. In the end, the only thing MONOPOLY achieved was a massive government expenditure and public humiliation for the U.S. intelligence community.

4. German Tunnels from the Great War

Berlin must have more tunnels under it than that town in Tremors. During the Great War (which would eventually be downgraded to World War I), it is thought that German spies met in subterranean tunnels to exchange information. The tunnels, disused and discovered after the war, had newspapers dated 1918 pasted on the walls.

5. Inter Services Research Bureau Spy Tunnels

In 1940, shelters were constructed beneath the city of London. Tube stations provided access, and tunnels were bored to connect the bombproof shelters. Ultimately, each tunnel facility could accommodate 8,000 people, and were elaborate enough to make even the Vault Dweller from Fallout envious. During the worst of the German assault, even General Eisenhower was once forced to set up shop in one of the shelters.

In 1944, the tunnel shelter at Chancery Lane was allocated for the Inter Services Research Bureau, an arm of MI6. The ISRB initially had intentions of helping the German resistance. Soon, however, it was a hive of 10,000 covert operatives. In 1945, MI6 vanished from the facility, leaving no evidence of its once thriving presence. Questions still remain as to what the massive spy apparatus did beneath the streets of London that year, anyway.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Working Nights Could Keep Your Body from Healing
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The world we know today relies on millions of people getting up at sundown to go put in a shift on the highway, at the factory, or in the hospital. But the human body was not designed for nocturnal living. Scientists writing in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine say working nights could even prevent our bodies from healing damaged DNA.

It’s not as though anybody’s arguing that working in the dark and sleeping during the day is good for us. Previous studies have linked night work and rotating shifts to increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, and car accidents. In 2007, the World Health Organization declared night work “probably or possibly carcinogenic.”

So while we know that flipping our natural sleep/wake schedule on its head can be harmful, we don’t completely know why. Some scientists, including the authors of the current paper, think hormones have something to do with it. They’ve been exploring the physiological effects of shift work on the body for years.

For one previous study, they measured workers’ levels of 8-OH-dG, which is a chemical byproduct of the DNA repair process. (All day long, we bruise and ding our DNA. At night, it should fix itself.) They found that people who slept at night had higher levels of 8-OH-dG in their urine than day sleepers, which suggests that their bodies were healing more damage.

The researchers wondered if the differing 8-OH-dG levels could be somehow related to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate our body clocks. They went back to the archived urine from the first study and identified 50 workers whose melatonin levels differed drastically between night-sleeping and day-sleeping days. They then tested those workers’ samples for 8-OH-dG.

The difference between the two sleeping periods was dramatic. During sleep on the day before working a night shift, workers produced only 20 percent as much 8-OH-dG as they did when sleeping at night.

"This likely reflects a reduced capacity to repair oxidative DNA damage due to insufficient levels of melatonin,” the authors write, “and may result in cells harbouring higher levels of DNA damage."

DNA damage is considered one of the most fundamental causes of cancer.

Lead author Parveen Bhatti says it’s possible that taking melatonin supplements could help, but it’s still too soon to tell. This was a very small study, the participants were all white, and the researchers didn't control for lifestyle-related variables like what the workers ate.

“In the meantime,” Bhatti told Mental Floss, “shift workers should remain vigilant about following current health guidelines, such as not smoking, eating a balanced diet and getting plenty of sleep and exercise.”

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