According to Hollywood, spies have access to all sorts of gizmos that mere civilians could only dream of playing with.
But it turns out that American secret agents use Google just like the rest of us. Now we are able to find out exactly how, following the publication of a hush-hush spooks' guide to the internet.
A 651-page tome called Untangling the Web has been published under freedom of information legislation. It is the 12th version of a guide written by experts at the US National Security Agency (NSA) and dates back to 2007.
The book [PDF] may not be a particularly sexed-up dossier, focusing mainly on search tips for secret agents, but contains several clues about the NSA's focus on the Middle East, Russia and China.
It opens with the tale of a Grand Vizier of Persia, Abdul Kassem Ismael, who owned 117,000 books and commissioned a caravan of 400 camels to carry them in alphabetical order - something no self-respecting spy needs to do in the modern age. Latter-day spooks can now use Google to search the "darned big" web, the document insists.
The anonymous author wrote: "After a decade of researching, reading about, using and trying to understand the internet, I have come to accept that it is indeed a Sisyphean task. Sometimes I feel that all I can do is push the rock up to the top of that virtual hill then watch as it rolls back down again."
The most interesting part of the document focuses on Google hacks, which shows spooks how to search for unsecured documents. Potential Google ninjas can learn how to use search terms like "filetype:" or "site:" to look for specific file types on specific websites.
In a nod to practicality, the NSA reminds its staff to try looking for documents or files at the website of China's foreign ministry (rather than its main government website) because there are likely to be more results in English.
It also recommends "URL guessing" by telling agents that Russian websites often use the name of cities in their web addresses.
Agents should also pay attention to cultural differences, advises the NSA's Googler-in-chief, who points out that using an Arabic spelling of Mohammed will return quite different results from using the English spelling.
Similarly, using localised search engines such as Baidu or regionalised Google variations will result in significantly different results than in the USA, says the author, who cites the example of searching for Basque separatist terror group ETA on Spanish search engines and comparing those to US-centric results.
Anyone looking to find out dialling codes for Russia is advised to visit the Russian Brides website as, "after all, these folks are running a business and must provide accurate information about how to contact their clients".
Wikipedia also got its first entry in the dossier, because of its "growing importance". However, the book contains the following advice familiar to any Reg reader (and journalist):
"Do not rely on Wikipedia as as your sole reference or source of information."
Despite the wide variety of search techniques detailed in the book, the NSA is quick to reassure upstanding spooks that nothing he's teaching them is illegal:
"Lest you think I am spilling the beans here, I assure you I am not revealing anything that is not already widely known and used on the internet both by legitimate and illicit Google hackers."
Other insights into the workings of the NSA's online division comes in the admission that agents were "never impressed" with Ask Jeeves, with its "annoying butler icon" and the "unfulfilled promise of answers to natural language queries".
To spies who find themselves stuck on how to use certain technologies or software, the author passes on the following strategy:
"Read the instructions."