Computers and Technology

Computers and Technology

New Industry Spawned By Cell Tapping

On March 10, 1876 Alexander Graham Bell made communications history by successfully transmitting a voice over wires.

Nineteen years later in 1895 the first known wiretapping of telephone conversations was conducted by the New York City Police Department.

Electronic eavesdropping has come a long way in the 96 years since wiretapping was used to catch some crooks in the Big Apple.

In fact, an entire industry has been spawned by the desire to prevent the surreptitious interception of telephone communications.

Because the telephone is a crucial business tool, businesses are particularly sensitive to maintaining secure telephone conversations.

In Louisville, security and telephone experts say the local business community doesn’t have much of a problem with electronic eavesdropping.

But, the experts add, many businesses are concerned about the potential for eavesdropping and what it could cost them.

“Business espionage is prevalent and business should be concerned and know how to protect information,” said James Sniegucki, a former FBI agent who now heads a corporate security firm in Louisville.

“We live in an age of electronics, and it’s getting easier and easier to do things like (electronic eavesdropping),” Sniegucki said. “And those devices for eavesdropping are available.”

Small, inexpensive microphones that can pick up a conversation and broadcast it to a recorder over radio frequencies are available in electronics stores, Sniegucki said.

Exactly how often Louisville business phones are bugged is hard to determine. Business people are reluctant to talk in detail.

“It’s not something that we really want to talk publicly about in particular cases,” said Michael Segbert, South Central Bell district manager.

Wiretapping is a federal crime, Segbert noted. The only exception is wiretapping by law enforcement agencies and only when they obtain court approval, he said.

Right there on page 7 of the telephone book white pages is a warning that it is illegal for a third party to wiretap or record telephone conversations.

It is not a crime, though, to wiretap or record a telephone conversation provided one of the parties involved in the conversation gives prior approval, Sniegucki said. ref:

Bell South Communications‘s security office gets a few calls a year from businesses wanting their telephone lines checked for “bugs,” Segbert said.

The number may be small, but the phone company treats all telephone security concerns seriously, Segbert said. “It’s rare, but it is important to us.”

He declined to say how many times a year the phone company gets calls from concerned businesses or how many times South Central Bell detects unauthorized wiretaps.

Sniegucki’s Capital Alliance Corp. gets 10 to 15 calls a year from business officials who fear their phones are tapped.

He declined to identify the companies that have asked him about wiretapping.

Sniegucki’s company does not do wiretap searches, but he has a working relationship with electronic eavesdropping experts from other parts of the country who will “sweep”, or search a room for taps for him.

Of every 10 or 15 businesses that call with wiretapping concerns, only one will have the office swept when they learn how much it costs, Sniegucki said.

Of all the electronic sweeps that Capital Alliance has been involved with, none have turned up listening devices, he said.

In contrast, in cities like New York, there are counterintelligence experts who stay busy all the time working on electronic eavesdropping, Sniegucki said.

“I really don’t think it’s done as much in Louisville as people think it is,” he said. “But people are concerned.”

Wiretapping is, by definition, recording a telephone conversation by using a physical connection to phone lines. Some of these “bugs” can be detected because they cause interruptions in the electrical current on the lines, according to published reports.

Electronics eavesdropping involves much more sophisticated technology that does not require a physical connection. Small microphones that can be concealed in any number of places in a room can broadcast conversations to a radio receiver tuned to that frequency. Sophisticated laser technology can, at a distance, pick up conversations from an office by picking up window vibrations, said Louisville private investigator Steve Forster.

Having an office swept for bugs is not cheap. It can cost thousands of dollars to do a competent job, Sniegucki said, depending on a number of factors including the size of the office.

“It’s not a simple procedure of walking through a room with a box with flashing lights,” Sniegucki said.

A thorough sweep takes time and involves many steps, he said. Removing sections of walls, taking apart phones and lamps, and checking telephone lines inside and outside the building are just a few of the things that a professional search involves.

Forster said he gets a half-dozen calls a year from businesses of varying sizes worried about telephone security.

Over the years he has found some tapped lines. Usually the taps are left in place. “You would want to feed it false information so you could try to find out who put it there,” Forster said.

He typically advises the business’ officials to simply avoid the telephone when discussing sensitive information if they are concerned about being wiretapped.

“The really scary thing is there is no such thing as a secure telephone conversation,” Forster said.

With the right technological know-how and resources, it is possible to eavesdrop on just about any conversation, Foster said.

“Of course this kind of equipment is extremely expensive and your average Joe is not going to know how to use it or have the money to come up with the equipment,” Forster said.

Some businesses want to tap their own phones so the boss can listen to employee conversations, Sniegucki said. However, even if a boss suspects an employee is passing inside information to a competitor, it is illegal for the company to eavesdrop on employee telephone calls, he said.

It is not illegal, however, for businesses to hook up equipment that will record what telephone numbers an employee calls from an office phone and the length of those calls, he said.

The widespread use of cellular telephones has brought a new dimension to telephone eavesdropping.

Cellular phones operate on radio waves that can be picked up by a receiver tuned to the right frequency.

Companies that provide cellular service contend it is difficult to eavesdrop because of constantly changing sign frequencies that a cellular call requires as a user moves from one “cell” to another.

Cellular service areas are divided into “cells”, each of which has a transmitting and receiving tower linked to a central computerized switching system.

Terry Boddington, Kentucky regional director for Cellular One, said even an eavesdropper with a scanner will find it “virtually impossible to pick up a specific (cellular) conversation” because the frequencies are constantly changing.

But it’s easy to eavesdrop on a cellular user whose vehicle is not moving when he or she talks on the car phone, Forster said. “The most unsecure conversation is someone sitting in a parking lot talking on a cellular phone,” he noted.

Forster advises clients who insist on having sensitive conversations transmitted by cellular phones to “talk slow and drive fast.”

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Posted by admin – December 16, 2012 at 2:56 pm

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Wiretapping During The Reagan Era

The widespread snooping into the private lives of Americans takes a toll: it inevitably undermines the trust that people need to feel in order to speak openly, to work together effectively and to share intimacies freely.

In the Nixon era, the Federal Bureau of Investigation eavesdropped mostly on small-time gamblers during business hours in an unsuccessful effort to rack up a good box score of convictions and identify the kingpins of organized crime. In the process, the conversations of a relatively small number of innocent people were overheard. No longer. As part of a perennial- and futile-war on drugs, the Reagan Administration concentrated its wiretapping and bugging on suspected traffickers.

During Carter’s term, there was an average of 24 drug-related taps a year; by contrast, of the 208 reported taps authorized for 1983, 140 were for narcotics investigations. Each drug tap catches many people in many conversations, as the eavesdroppers listen in twenty-four hours a day, often in residences or offices. Last year the average reported Federal tap caught 177 people in 2,057 conversations; that comes to 36,816 people overheard in more than 427,000 conversations. As drug use increases among people not normally involved in criminal activity, more innocent conversations, often of the most intimate nature, are intercepted.

The Supreme Court has encouraged this dragnet by allowing eavesdroppers to ignore Congress’s mandate that they make a good-faith effort to minimize their interceptions. As a result, only 15 percent of the intercepted conversations are what the government characterizes as “incriminating’ (whatever that means), and according to several studies, that percentage is overstated. Thus, even by prosecutors’ figures, at least 85 percent of everything overheard has no criminal connection.

Wiretapping in drug cases is not just sweeping; it is expensive: only surveillances in racketeering investigations cost as much. In 1983 Federal wiretaps reportedly averaged more than $65,000 each because of the increasing proportion of drug taps; thirty-two reportedly cost more than $100,000 each. The average tap in Federal investigations unrelated to racketeering or drugs costs about $50,000. And none of those figures include the cost of lawyers’ and judges’ time. (source:

Of the investigations that utilize wiretaps, drug cases produce the highest proportion of convictions. In 1981-82, for example, 130 taps and bugs were installed for narcotics investigations: 56 of those, or 43 percent, were associated with convictions; of the 114 taps in nondrug cases, only 28, or 25 percent, were associated with convictions. Still, various studies indicate that often the wiretap contributed little or nothing to obtaining the conviction.

Wars on drugs are wasteful public relations ploys anyway. The authorities may get a handful of big hauls but they rarely catch the big operators. In 1982 a state police eavesdropping specialist told Police Magazine, under a promise of anonymity, “The best you usually can hope for is to get the people who actually handle the drugs from day to day.’ As for penetrating the upper strata of organized crime, “you get to a certain level and then you stop,’ said a Connecticut police intelligence expert. “If you stumble onto something big, it’s more by chance than anything else.’ That is why some experienced district attorneys, like Mario Merola of the Bronx, who once considered wiretapping the weapon of choice in fighting drugs, rarely use it now. Only New York, New Jersey and Florida continue to wiretap heavily, and the way they use the taps often makes no sense. In 1983, seventeen wiretaps were installed in Suffolk County, New York. In the drug-inundated Bronx, however, there were none; Brooklyn and Buffalo had only one each.

In addition to law enforcement wiretapping, national security taps under this Administration soared for the third straight year. Those taps are allowed under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA) which sets a looser standard than the Omnibus Act of 1968. During 1979 and 1980 an annual average of 320 national security surveillances were ordered. But in 1981, President Reagan’s first year in office, the figure jumped to 433; in 1982 it was 475, and in 1983, 549. Although most taps authorized under FISA are supposed to be directed against foreign agents, Americans are being increasingly targeted. What dire threat to national security justifies this steadily growing intrusion on individual liberty?

On May 9, 1984, the House Intelligence Committee issued its annual report on wiretapping under FISA and, as usual, it didn’t say much. This committee and its Senate counterpart are supposed to oversee the agencies that operate under the statute, to make sure that it is not being abused; but their oversight does not inspire confidence [see Schwartz, “How Do We Know FISA Is Working?’ The Nation, October 29, 1983]. The only way to determine whether the statute is working properly is to review applications individually. As the committee admitted ruefully, however, the ones that the Administration made available for committee inspection were censored in such a way as “to reduce significantly the utility of the review process.’ Yet that didn’t stop the committee from concluding, on the basis of “extensive discussions’ with Administration officials, that the syatem was operating well. The committee warned, however, that since “effective oversight must be based on a more permanent foundation than good working relationships,’ it will in the future insist on reviewing the original, uncensored applications and “expects the Department of Justice to cooperate in this effort.’ Lots of luck.

In this fourth year of an Administration committed not only to wiretapping but to censorship, lie detectors and other repressive devices, it is impossible to resist invoking George Orwell’s nightmare masterpiece. If Reagan is reelected, however, and especially if he gets the chance to make a few more Supreme Court appointments like Sandra Day O’Connor, 1984 may come to look like the good old days.
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Posted by admin – November 21, 2012 at 3:13 am

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