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Planting the Interstellar Grove: Training Pilots for NRDS Nullsec, from Scratch to Academy

August 14, 2019

Lesson Three: Opsec, what is it?

Any veteran of EVE can probably tell you horror stories about how spies infiltrated one of their corps, or their alliance. How intel started finding its way onto enemy forum threads, how their fleets seemed always to face the perfect counter. How a director turned out to be a spy and looted the corp of all its assets. This last happened to me in my first corp: a disgruntled ex-corpie convo’d my director right after I’d logged for the night, told my director that he was actually one of my alts, got director access, and immediately emptied the corp hangars of everything we had. At the time, the theft accounted for all of our assets, about 15 billion ISK worth, which we had spent some three years amassing. It was a devastating loss.

Of course, that player wasn’t me, and while CCP actively promotes infiltration and betrayal as part of the game (unlike other MMOs, where this kind of espionage is prohibited, CCP makes advertising material out of it), players impersonating other players for the purpose of gaining advantages they otherwise couldn’t is a EULA violation. CCP, up until that point, had been telling us that thefts are a valid gameplay mechanic; but once we pointed this out to them, they swung into action. CCP’s policies prohibit me from disclosing what happened to the perpetrators, but the company’s recent public actions against botters—in which some very fancy capital ships found themselves transported as if by magic to Jita to die in a hail of weapons fire—should make clear to any pilot that you really shouldn’t mess around with the EULA. Seriously, kids, just don’t do it.

Also, stay in school, just say no, etc.

THE POINT IS at some point, fairly soon, you need to start thinking about security for your growing school. If your school is a standalone group starting out of the blue, you might (not unreasonably) be seen as easy pickings, and infiltration will be one of the means your adversaries will use to attack you. If your school is built up to serve an existing community or bloc, you might very well already have adversaries, and a school corp will be seen as an easy attack vector (my case is the latter: Provibloc, for better or worse, has a lot of adversaries. I’d argue we have more than most groups our size. Why that is will be a topic for another blog). Schools, by their nature, accept players with a lower barrier to entry, and this makes it easier for attackers to roll an alt to get them into your corp.

There are several ways you can protect yourself, none perfect, and based on different views of security. I’ll go over a few of them, but it’s up to you to find the solution that works best for your circumstances. Most alliances use a combination of several layers of security—some are concrete ones, others are more along the lines of what the (real-life) intel community would refer to as “human sources”—and I’d recommend the same.

First Approach: Software Solutions

One of the things I noticed when I came back to EVE in 2016 (I left the game back in 2012, shortly after that corp theft though not entirely related to it) was that EVE has far more tools available for auditing players. Back when I was first playing, your security measures consisted of requiring a full API from your applicants, which would let you view all the characters on an account. This was really helpful for seeing if they had alts in hostile alliances, but didn’t show you much else. The new ESI interface is much more powerful. Its main drawback is that it’s limited to single characters, but in return you get a lot more information. There are several tools that I’ve seen recommended for auditing pilots, and I want to cover them here with my own experiences in trying to use them:

  • ESIKnife: Available at https://beta.esiknife.space/. This is what I first used to check that first recruit of mine. It is hot garbage, and didn’t work at all after I first had my recruit register. Avoid.
  • ESI Knife: Available at https://esi.a-t.al/. Same problems. Avoid.
  • EVE-HR: Available at https://eve-hr.com/. Also supremely dysfunctional. Far bigger alliances than mine have tried to use it, and nobody could get it to work properly. Avoid

All three of this are on a list of recommended recruitment tools of any number of wikis for aspiring CEOs to use to check recruits. But one key point of opsec becomes apparent with all three of these (in addition to their poor implementation): as any security professional will tell you, once somebody has physical access to the machine, you lose control of its security. This is the case with all of these: they aren’t hosted locally, but rather through a web interface hosted by their developers. You won’t have any idea whether they have any logging software scraping the data, or what they do with the databases. So in addition to these three not being terribly functional, they’re a significant security risk to any organization, and should be avoided. It’s somewhat surprising to me that they’re recommended at all.

There is one software solution for auditing that is locally hosted, and everybody I’ve talked to considers it the gold standard of tools: SeAT. SeAT requires its own dedicated server to host it, and you have to set it up yourself (a process that is itself fairly involved). I won’t get into the details of how it works, but it is a frighteningly powerful tool. So much so, in fact, that its power becomes its biggest drawback: it manages so much of your members’ information that it becomes extremely important that you control the machine hosting it, and that you really trust whomever you’ve empowered to manage it. One of my colleagues uses SeAT for his corp’s auditing, and a friendly spy alt inadvertently logged his main onto the server. That main had director-level access in his alliance, and at a single stroke my colleague could see manufacturing schedules, structure timers, wallet transactions, alliance mails, everything.

If having all that information, for all your corp or alliance members, stored in a single location that one security breach could disclose doesn’t terrify you, it should. This then becomes the lesson of using software solutions: there is a balance between the risks involved in not performing audits of your members, and the risks inherent to having all that auditing information stored somewhere. Even with SeAT, or if your alliance cooks up its own tools, your security is only so good as your ability to ensure that you control the machine, and you know the software doesn’t have any backdoors hidden away somewhere. Security, then, is something you can only entrust so much to software tools. That layer will never be perfect, and thus you’re going to depend on others to reinforce it.

Second Approach: Human Intelligence

There are two aspects to good security that any reasonably large organization will have to implement. This might not matter to you if you’re just a small school teaching enthusiastic new members of a niche group. But if you’re in a situation similar to mine, you’ll need to rely on human intelligence as a second layer of defense. Trust your allies, and make sure that you have people capable of performing both these tasks:

Counter-Intelligence

You want people in your alliance with experience in how spies and thieves behave. There are any number of signs to watch out for, both inherent to the character and to their behavior, that experienced alliances know how to spot. I’m not going to enumerate all of them here—one of the parts of good counter-intel is not telling your adversaries all the tools you’re using to find them—but there are a few things to watch out for:

  • Old characters with few skill points. Admittedly, I have fewer SP than a character my age should have, because I took a break (and unfortunately, this often happens with new players: they try EVE out, lapse out, try again, etc.), but a player with a limited number of SP is a (mild) warning sign for a spy alt. Don’t take this one too seriously, but take it into account if there are other signs.
  • Characters with cyno skills, but no alts with cap/BLOPS skills. This is a big red flag, as it likely means your recruit is hiding a cap alt. When you ask for them to add characters to your auditing service, they should add all of their characters. If they don’t (and a mismatch between an alt’s skills and another alt’s skills that would need them is a good sign of this), that’s a warning sign.
  • Characters that join, but are never online, but show as active on your Discord. Again, this is a good sign of a spy alt. They’re possibly on their main, but have the alt in your corp to get corp announcements, read the forum, see your upcoming fleet ops on your out-of-game tools, etc.
  • Characters that always seem to be in groups your adversaries are fighting, but nobody seems to know. Say you’re red to goons. Your recruit has a history of being in a lot of corps that goons were fighting at the time, but nobody in those groups knows the person. It’s possible they might just really hate goons (or PL, or TEST, or whatever), but they might also just a be a goon spy.
  • Characters with really clean character sheets. Real players have killboard activity, random ships stored all over the place (why do I have a Hulk stuck out in Placid?), lots of market transactions, etc. Random alts for intel gathering are usually a little too clean. Obviously, new players haven’t had the time to scatter their stuff all over New Eden, but any player with an appreciable history in the game is going to have a pretty dirty character sheet.

There’s some other stuff, but you get the idea. There’s a profile that an honest player will usually match, and with some experience you’ll learn to recognize the signs that a recruit doesn’t have it. There’s also the other side to the counter-intel process, and that’s intel itself. Namely:

Spies

Any large enough organization will need a spy network. Not only for offensive intel gathering—that is, the thing they’re doing to you that you’re trying to prevent—but also for defensive purposes. You want spies in all of your main adversaries’ alliances, and preferably as high up in leadership as you can get them, to keep an eye on what kind of information is finding its way into their channels. This makes less sense if your group is more opportunistic and doesn’t have any long-term opponents, but if your group lives in sovnull space, there’s a good bet that you have the same people attacking you this year that you had last year, and the year before that. In Provi, the groups that are most hostile to us have been there since last year, and are (to a certain extent) singularly focused on attacking us. Fighting Provibloc is one of their defining features, so it’s not like they’re going to decide to move elsewhere on their own.

Your alliance or coalition should have its own spy network, and it should be highly compartmentalized. The spymaster shouldn’t even know which characters are your spies, and none of the spies should know any of the others. This whole process is one of the ways that EVE becomes scarily serious: the spycraft involved here is not altogether different from the kind you see in real life, and most of the same rules apply. How to do this well is outside of the scope of this blog; but if you’re in a group of any decent size, ask your execs if they can help you with intel gathering about your recruits, and make sure you have some eyes on what your adversaries might be doing to infiltrate you.

Of course, all of this takes the threat of infiltration rather seriously. There is another approach, which might serve to ease your mind a bit about just how much you should be worrying about spies.

Third Approach: fuckit, #yolo

Our coalition’s first leader was Aralis, one of the luminaries of EVE’s early history and someone I’ve had the honor of getting to know since I’ve returned to Providence. I spoke with him a couple weeks ago, and asked him about his own approach to dealing with infiltrators. His approach is refreshingly different, and rather reassuring.

Aralis was the executor of CVA, the leading alliance for Provibloc. CVA, as with Provibloc, has quite a lot of enemies, so they would be a natural target for spies (and much more skilled ones than the kind a small operation like my or your school would attract). I asked him what he did to protect his alliance, and he gave the following (roughly paraphrased) advice:

All you really need to worry about with spies is that you gain more benefit from them while they’re there than you lose from them. If your spy calls in a drop that loses you a fleet of t1 barges, so long as that spy was involved in getting your alliance more income, better kills, winning more fights, etc., than you lost, then you come out with a net gain regardless. So long as you can consistently do this, than it doesn’t really matter if you have spies or not: you’re still doing better.

This, I think, is the smarter, meta-level approach to spycraft (and strategy in general) that can ultimately help you. If you can ensure that your group comes out with a net positive either way, then you’re better shielded from spies, and you don’t have to worry so much about the ones you do have. There are other steps you can take to protect your school—a good approach, for example, is not to have many corp assets, relying on your members to keep assets in private hands; or, in my school’s case, just not having anything worth stealing in the first place—to mitigate the possible damage.

Fourth Approach: Be Good

I don’t mean “good” here in the sense of being good at pvp, or spycraft, or at espionage. I mean “good” in the sense of being good people. My alliance, I’m happy to say, prides itself on being made up of good people who are friendly, positive, tolerant, fair, and trustworthy. We have our share of rough-edged players, but the kind of toxic edgelord trash-goblins you often find in other groups just don’t fit in here.

That might make us sound like trusting saps, but it ends up playing to our advantage: to be a spy against the kind of group we work to be is almost the polar opposite mentality from the one we cultivate in our alliance, and being the former while performing the latter is extremely difficult. It’s really hard to give off the vibe that you’re a positive, community-building, social person if you aren’t these things. It doesn’t come naturally, and you give off tells that arouse suspicions. As with the rest of this, it won’t be the case 100% of the time, but it’s an extra layer of security that protects us: oddly enough, I feel like being a member of a community of positively-minded players has a net effect of making us more resilient to adversity, not less.


Our coalition, as a whole, is something different from most of the EVE community. It’s part of what makes us a target for a lot of other groups, but I believe it’s also part of what makes us stronger. To understand why, I want to spend the next article or two talking about what exactly NRDS is, what it is not, what it means for EVE as a whole to have groups dedicated to NRDS rules, and the history of groups that have done so. I also want to do some research myself about how other schools got their start, and sharing that with you, so I’ll be writing up a number of interviews with some of the major figures in EVE’s history. Stay tuned.

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