Honeypot: The Art of Seduction in Espionage

1.0 What is a Honeypot? What is a Honey trap? 

Honey trapping, also known as a honey pot, is an espionage practice that leverages romantic and or sexual relations. This is done to gain access to information that would be otherwise classified. This form of espionage known as sexpionage, is the involvement of sexual activity to conduct espionage actions. This can involve gaining access to classified information or access to locations holding data.

The honey-pot involves identifying and engaging with targets who have information that is deemed as valuable. The trapper will seek to engage in a false relationship with the victim. This relationship can be used to gain access to classified data. It can involve physical relationships however in the modern day there has been an increase in cyber-honey trapping. This tactic is highly controversial and has been employed since the early half of the 20th century. 

This practice is not only used to gain classified information, sometimes agents also employ it to capture or kill a target.

2.0 Honeypots in History 

Antecedents to Honey Trapping have a long historical basis. For instance, the Bible makes reference to Delilah, a woman who is bribed to discover the source of Samson’s otherworldly strength and then betrays him to his enemies. [Source]. However, the systematic practice of honeytrapping emerged in the 20th century.

2.1 Mata Hari

Mata Hari was a Dutch exotic dancer who was convicted of being a German spy during WW1. Intercepted telegrams implicated her in receiving money from a German attache in Spain.

However she was regarded as an ineffectual spy by the German military who disregarded her. She was accused of revealing information regarding the development of tank technology and was put to death in 1917. [Source]

Mata Hari was a Dutch exotic dancer who was convicted of being a German spy during WW1.
Mata Hari was a Dutch exotic dancer who was convicted of being a German spy during WW1.

2.2 Yakov Agranov

Yakov Agranov was a high-ranking deputy within the NKVD (Soviet intelligence service). He was responsible for the organization of political repression during the show trials of the 1920s and 1930s.

He was responsible for the organization of sex spy operations (sexpionage). Targeting the intelligentsia he used multiple Bolshoi ballerinas and cinema as well as theatre actresses. [Source]

Yakov Agranov – Architect of the Stalinist show trials during the 1920s and 1930s

2.3 Betty Pack

Betty Pack also known as Amy Elizabeth Thorpe was an Anglo- American Spy. When she was 19, she married Arthur Pack, a British diplomat. This allowed her to meet many MI6 members. The relationship with her husband was not working, and she soon started having extramarital affairs.

Her seduction skills drew MI6’s attention, which decided to recruit her to seduce Count Michal Lubienski, the Polish foreign minister’s chief aide. They soon became lovers and, while together, she was able to copy various reports from his suitcase. These reports included the codes to crack the Enigma Machine.

During the war, she was also given the task of retrieving Vichy’s naval code cyphers. She seduced and entered into an affair with a French collaborationist who held a high position within the embassy. This led to her being able to obtain the documents, which helped in the successful invasion of Vichy North Africa by US forces in November 1942. [Source]

2.4 Markus Wolf

In the early 1950s, Markus Wolf, an East German spymaster, realized that since many German men died in the Second World War, many women were single, and without a husband. His idea was to exploit their solitude, charm them with handsome spies, and consequently draw secrets from them. In order to achieve his plan, he created a new department in the Stasi, East Germany’s security service, staffed with handsome and well-mannered men, also called “Romeo spies”. Their task was to seduce unmarried and powerful women and gain valuable intelligence from them.

In this way, the Stasi was able to penetrate West German industries, the government, and NATO. Due to their distinct look and their “short back and sides” haircut, they were easily recognizable, and the West German counterintelligence finally spotted them. In his autobiography, Wolf stated that the Romeo spies “were sharp operators who realised that a lot can be done with sex. This is true in business and espionage because it opens up channels of communications more quickly than other approaches.”

2.5 Mordechai Vanunu

In 1986, Mordechai Vanunu, an Israeli technician who used to work for Dimona, an Israeli nuclear facility, claimed that Israel was developing atomic bombs. He wanted to give the news to British newspapers, also stating that he had pictures to prove it. During the negotiation with the London Sunday Times, he was hiding in a secret location due to the importance of his news. However, since he was bored, he decided to travel to Rome with a woman whom he met while visiting London.

In reality, the romantic weekend was a honeypot. The woman, Cheryl Bentov, codenamed “Cindy”, was the wife of a Mossad officer. As soon as the couple landed in Rome, the Mossad seized Vanunu. They drugged him and smuggled him by ship out of Italy. When he arrived in Israel, the authorities put him on trial, and he then spent 18 years in prison.

3.0 Modern Honeypotting

Although there are a few examples of honeypotting and the honey trap tactic in history, there have been multiple examples from the modern day.

3.1 Eric Swalwell

Eric Swalwell is an American U.S. representative and was a member of the House Intelligence Committee. He was targeted by a woman who was believed to be a member of China’s Ministry of State Security.

Although it was not revealed if he passed on any information to the Chinese operative he received a defensive briefing from the FBI which revealed that she had also engaged in a relationship with two midwestern city mayors. [Source]

Rep. Eric Swalwell

3.2 Ian Clement

Ian Clement was a Conservative MP and a former senior aide to Boris Johnson. He claimed that he was drugged by a Chinese spy during an investment trip prior to the London olympics in 2012.

He claims that she drugged him and then proceeded to steal his official BlackBerry phone. [Source]

Former MP and Boris Johnson ally Ian Clement

3.3 David Franklin Slater

David Franklin Slater was a civilian employed at Offutt Air Force Base and was arrested on 2 March 2024. Slater attended briefings at USSTRATCOM (U.S. Strategic Command) regarding Russia’s conflict with Ukraine, where the information discussed was classified up to “TOP SECRET//SENSITIVE COMPARTMENTED INFORMATION (TS//SCI)”.

Subsequently, he relayed this classified National Defense Information (NDI) through the messaging platform of a foreign online dating website to his accomplice. This accomplice, who claimed to be a Ukrainian woman, regularly solicited Slater for sensitive, non-public, and classified information. She referred to him as her “secret informant love” and “secret agent” in their communications.

In compliance with her requests, Slater allegedly provided classified NDI. This included details about military targets and Russian military capabilities relevant to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. [Source]

4. Official Warnings About Honeypots

Several national governments have issued warnings to their employees and citizens about the dangers of honey potting:

4.1 United Kingdom

In 2008 the British intelligence service issued warnings to financial institutions and businesses over the threat which Chinese cyber honeypots. They also warned of the threat that traditional honey pot agents posed to their business. Distributing a 14-page document titled “The threat from Chinese Espionage” they specifically named the Chinese government as engaging in honeytrapping.

In 2016 the British government issued similar warnings that government employees may be the target of Chinese honey pot attempts at the Hangzhou G20 summit. [Source, source]

4.2 Canada

In 2012 the Canadian government distributed a document titled “Far From Home: A Travel Security Guide for Government Officials”. It detailed how its employees may be in danger of being honey-trapped.

They revealed that government employees had reported awakening after being drugged and that their rooms and possessions had been searched through. Their items such as phones and documents or laptops had gone missing. [Source]

4.3 China

On 22 January 2024, the Chinese Ministry of State Security issued a warning on its official WeChat page. The warning came after a Chinese man went on a business trip and was later supposedly blackmailed by claimed foreign spies. [Source] 

5. Cyber Honeypotting

Although historically honey trapping and sexpionage have involved spies seducing their targets in person there is a modern phenomenon tied directly to the development of computers. This is especially difficult to counter in the cyber era. It has led to espionage and intelligence operations being more accessible and potent.

Cyber honeypotting has a reduced risk of losing an operative when compared to traditional espionage acts. Iran has been active in this field of espionage with a fake online profile known as Mia Ash. The profile was used on WhatsApp, Facebook and Linkedin to lure men to work for the Iranian government in important industries. [Source]

5.1 Features of Cyber Honeypotting

Some features of honey trapping in the cyber era are:

  1. Increased connectivity: The increased connectivity offered by social media and the internet has made it easier for intelligence agencies to identify and target people who may have access to classified information and data. [Source]
  2. Fake digital profiles: With information on social media and the internet being openly accessible agencies or malicious actors can create fake profiles and use these in order to seduce the holders of classified information.
  3. Deep Fakes: Technological advancements have enabled the creation of genuinely convincing videos which allow for the usage of AI-generated fake faces which convince the holders of information to pass it on. [Source]
  4. Data mining: Social media platforms collect vast and unknowable amounts of data from profile information down to advertisements. They are also quite vulnerable to hacking attempts and this can result in personal data being stolen and used in attempts against the target. [Source]
  5. Long-distance manipulation: Due to the advancements in technology over the last several decades it has allowed for the operation of honey trappers from anywhere in the world. They can build relationships and extract information remotely without the need for physical proximity. 

6. Implications of Honey Potting

There are several implications behind honeypotting going from legal implications to international implications 

Punishment for sharing sensitive data by public servants, government officials and also scientists and military personnel can vary and can also depend on the severity of the case. This can lead to imprisonment for long periods of time or even the firing of a public servant.

In the case of politicians who are found to be the victims of honeypotting attempts then they can lose their political seat or influence. Clayton Lonetree was a US Marine who was court-martialed in 1987 and sentenced to over 30 years in prison. He was honey-trapped and convinced by a Soviet agent to give up sensitive classified information. [Source]

6.2 International Implications

International law does not single out honey potting as an illegal state tactic. However, it can have severe consequences such as causing diplomatic strain. Following are several examples of modern-day honey potting with significant international implications:

6.2.1 Maria Adela

Adela was a woman accused of being a Russian GRU agent who had managed to cultivate close ties to several high-ranking NATO and US military members. This led to an increase in tensions between the US and Russia over her links to military members. These members would have had access to base photographs as well as sensitive military data. [Source]

6.2.2. Maria Butina

She is a Russian politician, gun rights activist and former entrepreneur who was arrested by the FBI in July 2018. She entered into a relationship with Paul Erickson, a Republican political operative due to the two sharing an affiliation over gun rights.

Whilst in this relationship she was accused of trying to influence American politics especially the Trump campaign on behalf of the Russian state. She was sentenced to around 18 months in prison but only served 5 of these before being deported back to Russia where she was elected to the State Duma. This led to an increase in tensions between the US and Russia over alleged meddling in the 2016 election. [Source]

Maria Butina at a meeting of the State Duma in November 2019

7.0 Conclusion

Honeypotting is a deep and invasive tactic used throughout history. Its goal is to gain access to sensitive information through the usage of human connection. It has been used to gain access to sensitive information such as military data, state secrets and even embassy access. Although it does not have the formalised state backing like it used to during the Cold War under the Soviet Union and its allied states such as East Germany it is still a relevant tactic in use by states worldwide.

From the UK and Chinese governments issuing warnings to their employees to members of the Indian military falling victim to Pakistani cyber honey pot agents it clearly shows the relevance of this tactic in the modern day.

This article has been recently refreshed and updated. The original version of this article was written by Rachele Momi.

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