Streetwise Professor

January 26, 2015

If the Russians Want to Know About HFT, They Don’t Need Spies

Filed under: Economics,Exchanges,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:08 pm

Attorney General Holder today announced espionage charges against three Russians, one of whom was arrested today in New York. Two were Russian diplomatic officials, and the third-the one arrested-was an employ of a Russian bank, reported to be Vneshekonombank. The FBI had the men under surveillance since 2012.

So just what were these agents after? Information about potential future sanctions targets for one thing. But they were also after information on high frequency trading of exchange traded funds, or in acronymspeak, HFT of ETFs:

According to the complaint, Sporyshev told Buryakov to tell an unnamed Russian state-owned news organization to ask about how the New York Stock Exchange used exchange-traded funds and potential limits on the use of high-frequency automated trading systems.

Why, pray tell, would this be of such great interest to the Russians? Economic sabotage? Or a money making opportunity?

And why the need for such cloak-and-dagger? There are Russians working in pretty much every HFT shop on and off Wall Street: remember Sergey Aleynikov in Flash Boys? Can’t they find one susceptible to blackmail, bribery, or appeals to patriotism?

Further, what really could be learned by having an “unnamed Russian state-owned news organization” (can you say “RT”? I knew you could) ask someone (presumably the NYSE itself) about “limits on the use of” HFT that couldn’t be obtained by reading public disclosures?

The best of all: it’s not as if the Russians couldn’t find out-and haven’t found out-pretty much anything about NYSE (or NASDAQ or any other exchange) operations without leaving home. They have been fingered for hacking many financial firms, including NASDAQ. (CME has also been hacked, although Russians have not been specifically implicated.) That would be a much more informative, and much less risky, way of divining HFT secrets.

And it’s not as if Russians in Russia aren’t aware of the details of HFT. The Moscow Exchange is actively trying to attract HFT firms (h/t @libertylynx), and has introduced capabilities such as co-location in order to do so. (But perhaps the Moscow Exchange rep is speaking in code. No doubt Fort Meade and Langley have their best men working on this.) Just Google “HFT Moscow Exchange” and you’ll find numerous links describing HFT activities there.

And if they want to learn about ETFs, why not just buy some books? Or do a little surfing? And there are Russian stock ETFs. (Note my clever insertion of the Market Vectors Russia ETF tag.)

You know that HFT and ETFs are hardly Russian espionage priorities. US intelligence and intelligence capabilities, defense technology, and even other types of economic espionage are of far greater interest. The triviality of the targets of this cell, compared to other things of much greater sensitivity, just reveals how pervasive Russian intelligence operations in the US likely are. So why go after this rather hapless group? And why now?

Viewed in context, it’s pretty clear. We rolled up what is likely the least important and sensitive operation the FBI is monitoring at this time and had the Attorney General announce it as a bit of Kabuki theater to communicate our displeasure with the Russians. We have had this group under surveillance since 2012, and could have netted them anytime. That time was now because of the escalating tensions with Russia. It is a signal that we can do things that would hurt the Russians much worse.

Will Putin listen? Doubtful. So what will we do next? That will be interesting to see.

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1 Comment »

  1. par for the course on FBI intelligence. always bet the opposite.

    Comment by scott — January 27, 2015 @ 4:28 am

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