GCHQ's spy death riddle shines light on UK hacker war
Was Gareth Williams spotted at Blackhat or Defcon?
British intelligence agent Dr Gareth Williams’ last mission before he was “unlawfully killed” was to infiltrate and report on US hacker meetings, evidence given at his inquest this week has indicated.
Williams appears to have been one of a team of intelligence officers and agents sent to penetrate hacking networks in the US and the UK.
At first sight he appears to be more Austin Powers than James Bond, but Williams is the first spy geek to be publicly unmasked, in sadly sensational circumstances.
His naked and decomposing body was found in the foetal position inside a sports holdall in the bath of his central London flat on 23 August 2010, one week after he had failed to turn up for work at SIS - aka MI6 - headquarters in Vauxhall Cross, London.
Coroner Dr Fiona Wilcox said yesterday that she was satisfied that a third party had placed the bag with his body into the bath and had also, “on a balance of probability”, padlocked it shut.
According to pathologists and escapologists who testified during her enquiry, the padlock on the almost airtight enclosure sealed his fate, stupefying and then killing him within minutes from CO2 poisoning.
His death was “was unnatural and criminally mediated”, she said. It was not suicide.
Who shut the lock on the holdall is a question that the coroner said could not be resolved with the evidence available. “Most of the fundamental questions in relation to how Gareth died remain unanswered," she said.
The compelling answer is a sex date a week before – somebody he had invited in to play bondage games and who may have panicked and fled when Williams lost consciousness, or sadistically locked the bag and left him to suffer.
Whoever he or she was, they did not leave enough DNA or forensic traces for detectives to have made progress to date. But the police forensic examination team, who checked through Williams' Mac laptop and iPhone collection, seem to have been blithely unaware of how many digital traces they may have missed or how much more may still be out there.
Williams’ last espionage targets were participants in the Black Hat and Defcon 18 hacker and security conferences held in Las Vegas in July 2010. His SIS manager told the enquiry that Williams was one of a “group” of agents tasked to attend the conferences.
The inquest was told about the unique Defcon 18 badge that had been found in his flat. The gimmick features a reflective display and an embedded digital signal controller that geeks were invited to manipulate.
Previously, as an operational officer, Williams had met two SIS agents working in the field in Britain, although not as their case officer or handler. Had he had not become cheesed off with SIS, the inquest was told, he would have been assigned abroad as a British secret agent. A few months before his death, he asked to go back to GCHQ.
Williams' working life, after graduating with a first in mathematics in 1996 aged 17, was spent in Cheltenham at GCHQ, Britain’s signals intelligence agency. He joined in 2001 after completing a PhD in computer science at Manchester University. His final role in GCHQ had been designing "practical applications for emerging technologies".
In 2007, he applied to become a secret agent by transferring to SIS, the UK's human intelligence agency responsible for spies and spy recruitment. He was put through a series of aptitude and skill tests. He failed. He also attended Black Hat 16 the same year, according to an SIS witness, presumably also then staying on to attend Defcon.
In 2008, he tried again to join SIS, and this time passed the tests. He started in spring 2009 after moving to London, and took part in five SIS training courses before embarking on "active operational work" within UK.
To spy on geeks, you need to hire a serious and thoroughly convincing geek.
'There is a history of sending intelligence agents to Defcon'
Details of names he used and his “legend”, or cover story, for the Blackhat and Defcon conferences have not yet emerged. But government agents – certainly US government agents - trying secretly to take part are a familiar sight, according to regular conference participants.
There is a “history of sending intelligence agents to Defcon”, according to privacy researcher and former hacker Christopher Soghoian. The practice has become so familiar, it's now an established joke: event organisers pre-print stockpiles of prized T-shirts that announce “I spotted a Fed”.
Participants are invited to interrupt sessions to air their suspicions of a spy within the audience, much like parliamentarians making a point of order, according to Soghoian. The session chair must then invite the accused spook to confess. If they do, the accuser wins an “I’ve been spotted” T-shirt.
British spooks are not known to have being challenged or exposed in this way. But the quiet Welsh, lean, slim, short, fit young geek with cropped hair and a penchant for red T-shirts is unlikely to have passed unnoticed.
Save for exceptional tidiness, Williams’ London government-rented flat was equipped as a nerd should wish: two live Macs, parts of a dead Mac, four iPhones, loose SIMs, and assorted gear.
Digital clues found in Williams' flat
One of the iPhones, the inquest was told, was his “normal” phone, which GCHQ and SIS staff attempted to call when he failed to appear in his office. The others may have been used to cover identities. One of the iPhones, found in the lounge, had been operated on Sunday, 15 August, and reset to factory settings. At 23.54, that iPhone was backed up to his linked Mac Air laptop, potentially overwriting previously stored data and call or chat records. The Mac Air was used to browse the net for another 90 minutes, finally dropping in just after 1am on the web pages of the Evesham Wheelers, a cycling club near Cheltenham.
Hours later on Monday morning, he was probably dead, according to pathology reports on the degree of decomposition found.
Between July 2008 and August 2010, according to records found on the Apple tech, Williams had periodically browsed websites concerning fetish clothing and self-bondage, looked up “bondage training” on YouTube, and checked a wiki on hogties. He had artofcontstraint.com, an “adults only” website offering “exceptional bondage images”. The site has not been online since July 2011, but at the time Williams visited, it featured images and video of rope and bondage techniques. He had also made frequent visits to high fashion sites.
Williams was a keen cyclist
A loner with no identified sexual partners, he was said to have most enjoyed intense cycling, and fell running and climbing in Wales with his father. SIS’s internal culture had irritated him, causing him to break his secondment. He would have returned to GCHQ the month after his body was found.
Forensic phone examiner DC Robert Burrows, of SO15 Counter Terrorism Command, told the inquest that he had found no record of the identity of Gareth’s date on the likely fateful night. But he did find a homemade phone video in which the shy intelligence officer had stripped, put on boots, bent over a chair and waggled his rear at the camera.
Burrows and his colleagues who studied the Macs and iPhone appeared unfamiliar with Apple’s operating systems, and may not have realised what could be obtained by more sophisticated enquiries. He failed to mention iOS or any of its many features that could have revealed location-tracking geo-tags, address book contents and the phone's unique IMEI number - let alone any data passed to Apple and app makers.
The inquest forensically exposed wretched incompetence by the intelligence services as much as it threw a cruel spotlight on the intimate thoughts, leanings and experiments of a very private person. Williams’ SIS team leader testified under oath that he had called Williams on Tuesday, 17 August. But this claim was not supported by phone forensics or telephone company records. DC Burrows found instead that SIS had made a series of panic calls between 10am and 11am on Monday, 23 August. They were a week late.
Sir John Sawers, known as "C", has published an “unreserved” personal apology to the bereaved family.
Williams’ former co-workers at Cheltenham sit inside the largest data harvesting apparatus Britain has ever seen, an irony that should not be lost on the murder investigators that the Met will now deploy on more a detailed and complete enquiry.
GCHQ has led the demand for long-term storage of all communications records and social networking data, and for untrammelled access to internet providers' networks. They already exercise massive surveillance over the web. Will they tell the police that they cannot now trawl to find the telecommunications and contact data apparently erased the night before their own prize-winning officer died from his own exhalations?
And if not, perhaps they would like to drop in on Apple HQ and ask the geniuses there. ®
Did you go to Black Hat or Defcon in 2008 or 2010 and see or meet Gareth? Let El Reg know by dropping us an email  or by calling the London office.