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The complaint against the other nine defendants - eight of whom are accused of posing as bogus married couples - further describes the alleged spy ring's technical methods.

The Illegals were given a steganography program by the SVR's Moscow Centre, it says. The software is not commercially available, and investigators discovered the alleged spies held copies of it by clandestine searches of their properties. Going back to 2005, the FBI obtained warrants to make forensic copies of hard drives and other digital media at several locations across the US.

A New Jersey search uncovered a network of websites, from which the alleged spies had downloaded images.

"These images appear wholly unremarkable to the naked eye," the complaint explains.

"But these images (and others) have been analyzed using the steganography program. As a result of this analysis, some of the images have been revealed as containing readable text files."

Over one hundred such hidden messages were found in the New Jersey search.

Similarly, a search in Boston led to websites carrying steganographic messages. The texts had also been encrypted, and both the Boston and New Jersey hard drives required a 27-character password.

The Illegals are also accused of receiving data from Moscow through "brush pass" meetings. On June 6 this year, a Russian official "surreptitiously gave cash and a flash memory stick to Richard Murphy" at White Plains train station in New York.

"As Russian Government Official #3 and Murphy passed one another on the stairs, Murphy held out his backpack and Russian Government' Official #3 placed the Shopping Bag that he had been holding into Murphy's backpack," the complaint explains.

Earlier this year Murphy had allegedly been summoned to Moscow Centre, with instructions to buy an Asus Eee PC 1005HA-P with cash, and bring it with him. He returned to the US in March, and handed the apparently modified or switched laptop (the complaint notes it had a different serial number) over to Michael Zottoli, one of his fellow defendants, based in Seattle. According to a message to Moscow recovered from the New Jersey hard drive, the new machine was needed "due to [Zottoli's] laptop "hanging"/"freezing" before completion of the normal program run".

According to the FBI, over several years the Illegals used all these technical resources and techniques to deliver sensitive intelligence about US nuclear weapons, economics and Washington DC gossip to Moscow. Today Russia's foreign ministry said the charges levelled at the group were "contradictory" and it was seeking more information.

There are copies of the criminal complaints against all the defendants here. ®

Update

Police in Cyprus said they today arrested the 11th suspect, Christopher Metsos, at Larnaca Airport, trying to board a flight to Budapest. He has been released on bail pending extradition to the US.

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