By Jim Ellison
The siteswaps were the first clue.
U.S. intelligence officials had long suspected that social media sites were mostly ruses for data mining. Many users, exuberant young Americans, simply thought they were having fun by posting short videos. But by using these platforms, were they putting their security at risk?
The specific threat was TikTok, a Chinese company famous for hosting short dance videos. The fear among intelligence officers was that the Chinese government was using TikTok to spy on Americans.
Early fears were vague. But then a curious trend developed: American intelligence officers noticed that when Americans posted juggling videos, Chinese government officials suddenly became better jugglers.
Reports from undercover operatives in Beijing indicated that after a particularly gnarly siteswap video or two were posted, Chinese military officers began trying to copy the tricks. They’d gather in a courtyard and work on their 633 patterns, or maybe a 534.
Hidden microphones picked up conversations as Chinese officials huddled over an iPad. Rough translations have them saying, “Dude, check those backcrosses! That’s sick!”
TikTok wasn’t alone. Reports circulated that Soviet intelligence regularly monitored juggling videos on Instagram and Facebook. KGB officers would then be seen surreptitiously practicing bounce patterns and pirouettes with cigar boxes.
“We don’t know how much actionable intelligence they got,” says an unnamed U.S. intelligence officer, “but their juggling improved dramatically.”
The official ties this improvement directly to the videos.
“It’s the style. It’s not traditional Chinese or Soviet juggling. These new patterns and variations convinced us we had them dead to rights.”
As bait, intelligence officials posted some bogus videos. A juggler would try some 3-ball pattern with hats or diabolos, post the video, and then wait. Sure enough, in no time, Chinese and Russian military maneuvers would include soldiers attempting these tricks.
“It was too big a coincidence,” the official laughs. “They were spying on us.” He adds grudgingly, “But they did some cool tricks.”
In the end, the juggling espionage episode failed to topple any governments. An American election approached, and spy agencies turned their focus to that. And a Chinese double agent invented some sleight of hand tricks that effectively derailed card magic for years.
But the juggling videos made for an interesting footnote in international sabotage. For a while, it was an arms race in every sense of the word.