Book Review: The Billion Dollar Spy

The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and BetrayalThe Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal by David E. Hoffman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a really fantastic book that tells the story of Adolf Tolkachev, a Soviet engineer who spied for the CIA and gave the United States hundreds, maybe even thousands, of technical documents pertaining to Soviet radar, military planes, weapons, and much more.

The book briefly traces the history of the CIA in Eastern Europe. At the start of the Cold War, it was very hard to recruit and run agents within the Soviet Union itself. Most of the assets spying on our behalf were doing so outside of the Soviet Union and were diplomats or intelligence officers working abroad. Eventually, this changed, and the CIA was able to recruit in Moscow itself. There was a setback during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, as the director of the CIA during this time placed more importance intelligence gained through technical means as opposed to intelligence from actual humans.

This was the environment in which Tolkachev approached the CIA. It took the poor man about a year to get the CIA to actually respond to his overtures for contact—but once they did, he produced an impressive amount of material. Originally, he hand-wrote valuable intelligence, either from what he’d seen over his career as an engineer or from documents he memorized, but the CIA quickly realized this wasn’t feasible long-term, so they supplied him with miniature cameras to photograph documents.

It wasn’t easy and he ran the risk of being caught many times, especially when he took documents home to photograph them. At one point, his wife discovered his spying and told him to stop, not because she liked the Soviet Union but because she was worried about the potential consequences for their family. In fact, Tolkachev’s hatred of the KGB and the Soviet Union stemmed from Natasha, his wife. Her family was murdered in Stalin’s purges in the 1930s and she was briefly reunited with her father when she was eighteen. He was released from a labor camp in poor health and told her everything: how Natasha’s mother Sofia was arrested and shot because she dared go visit family living in Denmark, a capitalist country, and how he refused to turn against Sofia, which led to his long sentence in the labor camp.

Tolkachev spied for many years, asking for payment in an escrow account he would have access to upon defecting, and also asked for everyday items that were hard to come by in 1970s and 1980s Moscow, including Western music for his son Oleg.

Unfortunately, despite the CIA and Tolkachev’s efforts to evade KGB surveillance in Moscow, Tolkachev was arrested, tried, and executed. His capture was the result of an internal betrayal; both Edward Lee Howard, a disgraced former CIA trainee, and Aldrich Ames helped the KGB identify him. He was executed in 1986. His intelligence helped the United States well into the 1990s: thanks to him, the United States was able to fight Iraqi pilots during Desert Storm since the Iraqis flew Soviet aircraft. Hoffman also emphasizes that the Tolkachev case shows how valuable human intelligence is, as there was no way to have acquired all this intelligence without having a source like Tolkachev.

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Wednesday Music (On A Thursday)

So, I forgot to post Wednesday Music yesterday. Today’s piece is String Quintet No. 3, G. 339, Op. 39/3 by Luigi Boccherini. I really hope I have the name of it correct because the recording I have identifies it by a different number. The internet says what I wrote is right, though, so we’ll just go with that. Here’s a bit about it.

  • This quintet is scored for two violins, a viola, and two cellos. Unlike Mozart’s string quintets, which have two violas and one cello, Boccherini used two cellos—probably because he was a cellist!
  • Also unlike the Mozart string quintets, Boccherini wrote this one in three movements, not four as Mozart often did.
  • In all of the movements, the cello often has the melody. Usually in string quartets or quintets, the violin has the melody. Again, I’m guessing this was because Boccherini was a cellist. Mozart was a violinist (before he decided to focus more on the piano), so he gave us some nice violin melodies in his chamber music.


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One Year Of Being Facebook-Free

Just Say No.

Over a year ago, I deleted my Facebook account. I consider deleting to be one of the best decisions I’ve made in a while. Seriously, my life is so much less complicated. I don’t have to worry about logging in and seeing stupid posts and stupid drama and all that. Though I can see the appeal of being a member of the website if you live far away from family and want to see photos they post, it just really got to me after a while.

Seriously, I think everyone should try going Facebook-free to see how it is. You can deactivate your account (which isn’t the same as deleting it) temporarily. Once you see how much simpler life is, then you can go back in and delete it permanently. And you know what you can do with all that spare time you’ll gain from not using Facebook? Start a blog, of course.:)

How NOT To Become A Victim Of Hackers

In my prior post on this subject, I wrote about how I, a relatively security-conscious and tech savvy individual, became a victim of Russian hackers. As you’ll recall, both of my Apple devices (an iPhone and an iPad) were taken over via iCloud. I had to erase both devices to regain control. The phone was relatively easy, as I wiped it via cell connection, but the iPad was a bit more of a challenge because I had to plug it into my computer and erase it through recovery mode.

Anyway, though it wasn’t the absolute worst thing to have happen (seriously, everyone, backups are so, so important because they give you the power to disregard the hackers and regain control of your devices on your terms, not some nasty extortionist who wants to get money out of you), it was annoying. All in all, I spent several hours temporarily freaking out about it, researching it, and then actually performing the steps that allowed me to regain control. Obviously, I want to avoid this happening again, so here are some tips that will (hopefully) protect you.

  • Change passwords. I know, I know, it’s a huge pain… but if you reuse passwords, as I and probably the rest of the world does, it’s a good idea to change them every so often. Remember, just because a company gets hacked doesn’t mean they’ll openly admit it. I have yet to find anything from Apple admitting to being hacked, but I am very certain this breach came directly from Apple. So, an occasional change can’t hurt.
  • Delete old accounts. This isn’t the most helpful tip, I admit, but I try to keep the amount of online accounts I have to a minimum. More accounts out there equals more opportunities for hacking and stolen passwords. If I end up abandoning an account and cannot delete it myself or get it deleted—cough*Skype*cough—I change the email address to one I don’t use and the password to something I don’t use anywhere else so it doesn’t matter if it’s stolen. I know people accumulate a rather alarming amount of online accounts nowadays, so what I do is keep a little list of where I’ve signed up. It doesn’t have any sensitive password information, but it’s a lifesaver when you want to make sure you’ve changed all your passwords.
  • Enable two-factor authentication. This is my secret weapon right now. It’s been around for a while, so some of you might use it, which is great. For those who are unfamiliar, two-factor authentication requires you to enter something more than a password to log into your accounts. Usually you give your phone number, verify it with the account by entering a code texted to you, and when you log in in the future, you have to enter a code received by text message. The logic is if someone stole my iCloud ID and password again, for example, they wouldn’t receive the code Apple texts to me, which would keep them out of the account. However, I would receive the code and realize it was from an unauthorized attempt to get into my account. Remember, you won’t receive codes unless you go to log in to your account. The hackers took control of my devices around 2:00 am local time, so that would have been a pretty obvious red flag to me if I’d had this enabled and received a code from Apple when the Russians tried to get in.
  • Now, two-factor authentication isn’t perfect. It can be annoying at times, like if you didn’t have your phone sitting right beside you as you logged in. Also, you have to write down or print out codes to use in the event that your phone isn’t working or you don’t have cell service or whatever, and yes, these codes are one more thing to keep track of. It’s a pain, I know. Plus, Apple just gave me several frightening details when I went to turn on two-factor authentication, informing me that if I forget my password, I need to have access to my email AND phone, otherwise the account is lost forever.
  • And finally, my last point on two-factor authentication: not every website offers it. In fact, most do not offer it. A lot of the sites I use don’t have it. The big companies, like Apple, Google, and Twitter, all have it, but Pinterest and Goodreads don’t. I don’t know if Amazon does, as I’m trying to figure that out. WordPress has it (and it is protecting this very blog right now!). Some of the large banks have it, but not all banks in this country do. I don’t know if my company has it or not. If they don’t, maybe I need to suggest implementing it to the cybersecurity department. The point is, you’re bound to have some online accounts that don’t offer it.

Anyway, I hope that helps. I have a feeling I may have made your lives more complicated. I know mine is more complicated now! I’m still a bit shocked the whole hacking thing happened. You never think it’s going to happen to you—until it does. Seriously, back up your devices to iCloud or whatever you use and make sure your accounts are secure. Trust me, you don’t want to wake up one morning and have all your devices taken over.

In Which I Become A Victim Of Hackers

Dear readers, Wednesday Music is on hiatus this week due to some very strange happenings around here. First, I had no internet over the weekend, when I usually schedule my blog posts. That was inconvenient, to say the least. To add insult to injury, it went out the day I paid the bill on my internet account (that’s just a mean twist of fate, if you ask me) and I got a notification for next month’s bill the day it came back on. I think I’ll call the billing department and as for a reduced bill this month since I spent four whole days without the internet. It’s not actually that much money per day if you calculate it, but it’s the principle of the matter!

The next event that disrupted my blogging was even stranger than an internet outage. I’m almost embarrassed to admit it. You see, I’m very good with cybersecurity, but even the best of us mess up at times, right?!?:) On Sunday night, I became the victim of hackers. And not just any hackers, but Russian hackers.

I woke up on Monday morning to messages on my iPad and iPhone that said these devices were locked and “Dlya polucheniya parolya, napishite email na [redacted email address].” Of course, there was a real email address there. I don’t want to give it out quite yet, not until I have a little bit of fun with it. Yes, the words were written in Latin characters, and yes, they are clearly Russian. The message says, “To receive password, send an email to…” You get the point. For those who haven’t experienced it, the lock screen on iOS allows you to enter a password. Obviously, nothing I tried worked since I had not set this password!

So anyway, I had no internet at home, no devices, no way of contacting the outside world. It was somewhat frightening. I went to work early and researched the issue. Unlike a lot of people, I didn’t care about the data on either device because it was backed up. I went into my iCloud account, changed my password, beefed up the security even more, and took control of my phone. I remotely wiped it, thus disabling the security. Then, I connected to the network at work and re-synced all my data. All I lost were some text message conversations, and those were due to be deleted anyway.

The iPad was trickier. Somehow it had disconnected from WiFi and would not reconnect. Locked mode doesn’t let you do anything, so I couldn’t select a WiFi network or anything. I ended up doing an emergency reinstall through iTunes. I downloaded a file from Apple’s servers and ran it to completely reinstall my operating system on my iPad. I was forced to update to a system I hadn’t previously wanted, but the good news is it’s actually working out rather well. I like it and most importantly, these Russians no longer hold my devices captive. I never even considered paying the “ransom money” for them. I would actually rather buy entirely new devices than ever pay extortionists a dime!

I spent a lot of Monday improving the security on various online accounts—including this blog! One thing’s for sure: I don’t want this to ever happen again. You see, they got into my devices using the “Find my iPhone” feature. The GPS is so accurate that it pinpointed the location of my devices with near-exact accuracy. My address was right there on these people’s screens! That’s actually the creepiest thing about this whole situation, if you ask me. The only saving grace is they probably hacked a ton of accounts at once. Based on what I know about what email addresses and passwords I use online, I am very certain this hack came directly from a breach at Apple. Apple won’t officially admit it—as they won’t officially admit a lot of things, like how their devices perform a lot better with periodic operating system reinstalls—but it’s the only thing that makes sense. The email address and password used in this hack have only ever been used with my Apple ID/iCloud. I am very certain of this. So if you have an Apple account, change your password before the Russian hackers get you!

Coming next: some tips on how to improve the security of your online accounts.

The One Lovely Blog Award

A fellow classical music lover nominated me for a blog award a few weeks back. I think it was right around the time I moved, so I haven’t had a chance to sit down and write something for it. It’s called the One Lovely Blog Award—thanks for the nomination, Cymbrie!

The first part of the award involves nominating other bloggers. I never know who to nominate for these things, so I’m just going to say that if you’re reading this and have a blog, feel free to participate. Consider yourself nominated!:) The next part involves sharing random facts about yourself. I don’t think there’s any hard and fast number, so I’ll just share several. Feel free to share as many as you like. Oh, and if you participate, link back to me so I can go read your post!

Random facts:

  1. I can sing the Christmas song Silent Night in three languages: English, Russian, and French. Don’t ask why—it’s sort of a long story. And no, if I meet you in person, I won’t sing it for you. I’d be too embarrassed!
  2. I’ve lived in more US states than I care to admit and also lived abroad for a year. In fact, this blog was born during my time abroad.
  3. Classical music is one of my favorite things in the world.
  4. I got hooked on learning Russian when I was at university and have studied it ever since.
  5. Returning to the classical music theme, I play the violin. I don’t get to play as often as I’d like, but I still love playing anyway.
  6. I write fiction a lot in my spare time. I’ve completed quite a few novels, but nothing publication-worthy… yet.
  7. One of my favorite hobbies is knitting and crocheting. I’ve amassed quite a collection of scarves over the years, all of which I rotate through in the winter.

Fellow bloggers, don’t forget to share your posts!

Wednesday Music: Mozart’s Serenade No. 7

Today’s piece is Mozart’s Serenade No. 7 in D Major, K. 250 (248b), commonly known as the Haffner Serenade. I chose it because it was composed and first performed in 1776, the year the Declaration of Independence was signed. It’s funny to think that this piece was performed in mid-July of 1776, mere weeks after the Declaration was signed across the sea. I wonder if news of the signing had reached Austria at that time. Here’s a bit about it.

  • A member of the Haffner family, Sigmund, commissioned Mozart for this piece so it could be played at his sister’s wedding. This wasn’t the only piece Haffner commissioned. He also commissioned a symphony that later became Symphony No. 35.
  • The piece is in eight movements. The second, third, and fourth have prominent violin solos.
  • There is another piece Mozart wrote that is assumed to go with this one as entrance and exit music. Today, they aren’t usually performed together, though.


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