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26 Oct, 2013 13:34

Rock, paper, surveillance: US Army investing in smarter ‘spy rocks’

Rock, paper, surveillance: US Army investing in smarter ‘spy rocks’

Hi-tech weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin presented its latest effort in surveillance technology this week – a web of self-organising sensors with the ability to trigger any kind of device from a distance and have it operating autonomously.

The presentation took place at the annual meeting of The Association of the United States Army (AUSA) that took place Monday through Wednesday.

The goal of the defense contractor’s much lauded “field and forget” technology is to offer vast coverage at little operation cost, as well as the ability for units to remain in sleep mode and without maintenance for years on end. It relies on the sun for power, Wired reported from the meeting.

The official name given to the technology is SPAN – or Self-Powered Ad-hoc Network – a “covert, perpetually self-powered wireless sensor network” that offers its users “unobtrusive, continuous surveillance” at sizes so small it could fit into a rock.

When remotely triggered, the self-organizing sensors can do anything from starting up a camera to ordering a computer to alert human personnel when a civil structure is in danger or simply disrepair.

The SPAN system was originally introduced last year. Earlier in 2013, a former Lockheed Martin subcontractor made headlines by trying to sell an earlier prototype of the “surveillance rock” a few years ago for $10 million. The original idea had had been scrapped by the manufacturer and did not come to fruition.

A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on March 7, 2013 shows rocks used to "camouflage" surveillance cameras found on the Syrian coast, which Syrian authorities said were "Israeli spy gear". State television broadcast pictures of "Israeli spy gear" unearthed in Syria, in what it said was proof of Israel's involvement in the armed revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, as Damascus blames foreign-backed terrorists for the deadly uprising against Assad that broke out in March 2011. (AFP/SANA)

However, the high-tech rocks being marketed now are an entirely new invention. The company proudly announced that the concealed nature of SPAN sensors allows them to “reduce the likelihood of discovery and tampering.”

This comes on the heels of an embarrassing incident involving British intelligence and Russia, in 2006, when British spies used a fake rock in a Moscow park to exchange information between agents and embassy staff.

At the time, a report on Russian television claimed there was proof that British spies were using electronic equipment hidden inside a fake rock to exchange information between agents and embassy staff. The British government of then-PM Tony Blair initially denied using the spy rocks, but in 2012 his chief of staff at the time, Jonathan Powell, admitted to the surveillance, calling it “embarrassing.”

Iran also discovered a spy rock, at the site of a uranium enrichment site, in September 2012. 

While troops were patrolling the classified site’s perimeter, they found a monitoring device in a rock. When they had approached it, the device exploded; it was presumably rigged to self-destruct on approach.

It was not clear who was behind placing the device at the Iranian nuclear facility, but Israeli, British and American agents have reportedly been actively involved in surveilling Iran’s military and unclear activities, given the countries’ fear of a nuclear-capable Iran.