The NBA Used An Espionage Trick Known As 'Canary Trap' To Catch Teams Leaking Info To The Media

Daniel CraigAPThe NBA is now using methods found in spy novels.

The NBA fined Detroit Pistons president of basketball operations Joe Dumars $US500,000 in 2010 for leaking information to Yahoo! Sports NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski according to Kevin Draper of

It is one of the largest known fines for an individual in NBA history, equaling Mark Cuban’s largest fine after repeatedly criticising league officiating.

But what is really interesting is how the NBA caught Dumars passing “confidential league memos” and it is straight out of a spy novel … literally.

In order to catch the people responsible, the NBA set up a months-long sting operation based on a common espionage method made popular in the Tom Clancy novel “Patriot Games” when the protagonist, Jack Ryan, used what he called “canary trap.”

According to Draper, when the NBA sent memos to teams, each team would get a slightly different version in which a few words or numbers would be changed. So when the memo, or information from the memo, was leaked to the media, the NBA would look for the small changes they had made to see which team the leaks came from.

Dumars was one of two executives caught “red-handed” according to Draper.

Here is how “Jack Ryan” described “canary trap” in “Patriot Games”:

“Each summary paragraph has six different versions, and the mixture of those paragraphs is unique to each numbered copy of the paper. There are over a thousand possible permutations, but only ninety-six numbered copies of the actual document. The reason the summary paragraphs are so  — well, lurid, I guess  — is to entice a reporter to quote them verbatim in the public media. If he quotes something from two or three of those paragraphs, we know which copy he saw and, therefore, who leaked it … You can do it by computer. You use a thesaurus program to shuffle through synonyms, and you make every copy of the document totally unique.”

In spy circles, the technique is called “the barium meal test” in reference to the drink taken to make the digestive system visible during stomach x-rays.

The NBA is not the only organisation to take advantage of this method in real life.

Back in 2007, it is believed by some that Steve Jobs used a version of the “canary trap” by making up a product called “Asteroid” and then feeding different pieces of information to everybody in the organisation. He then waited to see which pieces ended up in the media.

Not surprising considering how much Jobs and Apple have valued secrecy.

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