By Jack King
"We don't do illegal wiretaps," Alan McDonald, supervising special agent for the FBI's Information Resources Divison, told participants at a debate sponsored by Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility in 1993. He then added cryptically, "I don't know about your state and local authorities."
"I suppose they gave them up about the same time they gave up black bag jobs," a reporter muttered to Danny Weitzner, then a guru with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Weitzner snorted cynically.
Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 (Title 18, Sections 2510-2521 of the United States Code and other sections) makes it a federal crime to intercept oral, wire, or electronic communications without an Electronic Surveillance Order (ESO) from a federal or state judge.
Each and every federal agent takes an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution and the laws of the United States. Yet according to figures collected by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, overone million innocent conversations were intercepted by law enforcement each year for the past 10 years except last year, when an estimated two million innocent conversations were caught on tape.
Not only is this a massive invasion of your personal privacy, it's expensive. Taping and listening to people when they call mom, order pizza, or have phone sex is hardly an efficient expenditure of law enforcement rerources. It's costing us a bundle.
"Most wiretaps are inefficient and costly," says David Banisar, a lawyer and policy analyst with the Electronic Privacy Information Center . According to the Administrative Office of the Courts' annual Wiretap Report, 1,058 requests, not including an apparent 150 Drug Enforcement Administration requests, were mysteriously never filed with the A.O. The prosecutors estimate this costs the taxpayers $56,454 per tapalmost $60 million last yearand that's leaving out a lot of their costs. And that doesn't include the foreign intelligence taps."
The Feds are our friends. Of course they don't do illegal taps. Why should they? There are plenty of other folks around doing it, and willing to share their intelligence with them. For one thing, criminals, believe it or not, are very fond of tapping and taping each otherit's like insurance. When the shit hits the fan, it gets on everybody, and one way to stay squeaky clean with the Feds is to make them a deal they can't refuse. Another source of illegal wiretap evidence comes from state and local law enforcement officials. McDonald won't vouch for them, but some federal agents and federal prosecutors are not above receiving illegal wiretap evidence when it's handed to them on a silver platter. Sort of a law enforcement version of "don't ask, don't tell."
And a very important law enforcement source of illegal eavesdropping evidence is the ever-vigilant Good Citizen with a scanner. The bugging business is booming.
An Idiot Can Do It
Every so often, so-called "superhacker" Kevin Mitnick gets busted again, or somebody hacks the U.S. Department of Just-us Web page and people get hysterical about computer security. I don't just mean concernedI mean the newspapers, the magazines, the six o'clock newsfolk, Andy, Barney, and Aunt Beaeverybody just goes crazy out of their gourds over computer security.
Then they pour a glass wine, get into bed, snuggle up to their pillow, and talk dirty to each other over cordless telephones across the country.
Right. With most cordless telephones on the market, any idiot can intercept the conversation. Oh, that was recently made illegal, but word apparently hasn't gotten around to my Sanyo cordless handset, which intercepts the conversations of this other guy in my apartment building like he was in the same room. I don't use that phone for anything. Not that I'm into phone sex so much, but I'm on a first-name basis with LL Bean, and I don't want anybody else leaving home with my American Express numbers.
And many scanners, the favorite toy of people who not only don't have a life but don't even have an ISP, can be modified to pick up both sides of a cordless telephone conversation pretty well, even though the handset and the base station operate on different channels. Heck, should I point out that for units manufactured before October 1994 (some of which are presumably still on the shelves), this was actually a selling point?
Next time you watch Jerry Seinfeld answer his cordless phone, imagine you live next door to him and you really can hear both sides of his conversation.
Real He-Man Bugging
The New Improved Anti-Terrorism Act of 1996 will let federal agents listen in on your telephone and bug your home and business for political investigations. The President wants to keep you safe from terrorism. Fine, no way I want to get blown up by some nut with a Semtex connection. But heydo you have a friend in Ireland? In Lebanon? In France? FBI Director Louis Freeh wants to know what you're talking about. Now if it's just hot phone sex, you're okay. But he will be listening. Because whereas phone sex is still legal, talking with a "designated terrorist organization" will get you a 30-day wiretap authorization, extendible ad infinitum. And under the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, the U.S. Department of Justice gets to designate who the terrorists are.
But if you're only talking to your boyfriend or girlfriend, you'll be okay, right?
Nope, not if the White House and the FBI get their way with the new counterterrorirm proposals. The feds will be permitted to listen in on your phone, your fax, your computer for a good 48 hours without a warrant. The FBI wants to legalize the same kind of political surveillance they conducted illegally in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.
Oh, you say, you're not political? Well, good, because the government will have 48 hours to check that outwithout a warrant. "This is the same FBI and DOJ that brought you Ruby Ridge, Waco, and Filegate," says Leslie Hagin, legislative director and counsel for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in Washington, D.C.. "The FBI's wiretapping was reined in by Congress in 1968, through the current wiretapping laws, after many decades of abuselargely because members of Congress were fed up with having their own offices and phones bugged and tapped!"
When you roll that proposed legislation in with the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act, you can see Big Brother from miles away.
That little number, passed late on a Friday night in October of 1994 and unreported in the press for a year, orders local and long-distance telephone companies to provide the feds with the hardware and software necessary to permit them to eavesdrop on any telephone in the country from a "remote" location of their choosingsort of a National Wiretap Office.
No more climbing telephone poles or breaking into junction boxes; no more sitting in vans night and day, winter and summer, listening and taping, listening and taping. In the future, all that will be automated (at least for the feds), and the Future Is Now, as the late great George Allen once said.
FBI wiretap guru Alan McDonald says the FBI doesn't do illegal taps. It doesn't have to, when a federal agent can get state cops to do his dirty work for him.
In Tampa, Fla., a few years ago, U.S. Customs special agent James Taman got the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Department and Tampa police to obtain apply for state Electronic Surveillance Orders (ESOs) both before and after planting bugs in phones and offices of Key Bank. U.S. District Judge Clarence Newcomer threw out the evidence after finding that it was illegal.
"Approximately 65,000 calls and 1,123 hours of conversations were monitored," the judge wrote in his decision. "There appears to be no justification for such a massive invasion of so many individuals' expectations of privacy in confidential banking or personal telephone conversations."
Bank officers and their customers were suspected of money laundering, one of the most serious federal crimes in Title 18 of the U.S. Code, carrying a penalty of up to 20 years and a $500,000 for each offense.
A state racketeering case based on the same wiretaps also crashed and burned when Hillsborough Circuit Judge M. William Graybill ruled that the evidence could not be used to prosecute the bank officers and two of their customers in state court either. When the Florida appeals court upheld Graybill's suppression order, embarrassed federal prosecutors quietly withdrew their appeal of Newcomer's decision. The cases went away.
Michael Peros runs Privacy Electronics , which sells surveillance and counter-surveillance equipment and also does security sweeps for hidden listening devices. Mike's the guy who first discovered that Key Bank was bugged, after he was hired to do a routine sweep. "I even found a tap on the pay phone in the men's room," Mike told me on a recent visit to Washington. Apparently there's no privacy anywhere anymore.
Your Friends Are Your Worst Enemies
If you're not worried about law enforcement listening to your calls, what about your SO? Your business partner? Your mom?
It used to be that electronic surveillance was a job for the experts. Not anymore. Now there are plenty of pretty scary items on the market that can lay your life wide open to somebody with a little money and a motive to screw you.
Here are only a few products from SHOMER-TEC, a "law-enforcement and military equipment" company in Bellingham, Wash., that sells to anybody.
THE DIGIT SNATCHER
Somebody can tell an awful lot about you just by knowing who you call and who calls you. Once upon a time, that required two different devices (and for law enforcement, two different court orders)one to record the numbers you dial (a dialed-number recorder or DNR), and another to record the numbers of people calling you (before Caller ID, this was known as a "trap-and-trace" device).
But technology is wonderful. For $399, you can buy The Digit Snatcher, which does both. According to the company, the Digit Snatcher collects and stores the number dialed on outgoing calls, the phone number of the caller on incoming calls, the date and time of each call, and the duration of each call. And it's smallthe size of a 3-x-5 index card, and an inch thick. It
runs on a 9-volt battery or AC converter (both included!).
ANSWERING MACHINE INTRUDER
There is no legal way to use this device, but you can buy one. So can that deranged ex-boyfriend who will never get you out of his buzzing head. The Answering Machine Intruder defeats an answering machine's security code system, allowing unauthorized users to remotely retrieve your messages, so long as the machine uses a one, two or three-digit code (most do). The price is $149.
Recognizing a potential market when it sees one, SHOMER TEC says that the Intruder vill not work on answering machines that are connected to the Answering Machine Protector. They'll sell you one of those for $129. The company also sells run-of-the-mine-type bugs, like surveillance transmitters ($249), but those can be detected with devices like the ProSweep bug detector, which seeks out transmitter signals up to 2500Hz ($499). But there's one kind of room bug that the ProSweep won't find. It's a bug that doesn't use a transmitter, but rather uses your own telephone line to send a signal back to the listener. It's not a bug on the phoneit's a bug in the phone, and it picks up conversations in the room whether somebody's using the phone or not.
Mike Peros found one of those inside a client's telephone. Since they don't send out a telltale radio signal, the only way to find one is to open up the phone and look, he says.
These things used to be little homemade devices you would cobble together from obscure plans drafted by the same kind of guys whose mastery of high school civics leads them to challenge the legitimacy of any government bigger than the county commission. The plans were more vague than a 7th-grade science project, but infinity transmitters did exist. What they would do (when they worked) was make a telephone into a room bug. In the old days of fault-based divorce and no federal wiretap laws, you'd install it in your bedroom Bell Systems Princess Phone (R), and when you went out of town, you'd dial your home number, disable the ring, and hear every grunt and groan your soon-to-be-ex-spouse made as s/he humped the rowing machine. These things never worked, and if they did, the bedroom phone never rang, which was a dead give away that something was wrong with the phone.
But times change. Which brings us to...
THE SURVEILLANCE TELEPHONE
According to SHOMER-TEC, "The Surveillance Telephone is a state-of-the art [sic] electronic device that allows you to conduct remote audio surveillance of an area via the telephone line." It's a cheapo touch-tone telephone that has an infinity transmitter built right in. Buy one for the bedroom before you move out and file for divorce. Give one as a gift to your girlfriend. SHOMER TEC promises that all you do dial the phone's number "from any phone in the world" and "you'll be able to listen in to all of the audio activity in that room." The phone rings normally on normal calls, the company says.
Just don't get caught: Remember, using these devices, or possessing them with the intent to use them unlawfully, is punishable by up to five years in the federal pen.
Think people aren't listening, because it's illegal? Think again. In 1991, during an internecine political battle between then-Virginia Governor L. Douglas Wilder and Sen. Charles S. Robb, the state's two most prominent Democrats, one of Robb's cronies intercepted a number of Wilder's cell-phone calls on a homemade receiver-tape system. Wilder freaked when the tapes leaked, and Robb's buddy Robert Wayne Dunnington ended up pleading guilty to a felony violation of the federal wiretap statute. Things have never been the same between Wilder and Robb.
If that's not enough, remember that Prince Charles, heir to the throne of the United Kingdom, was once taped expressing his longing to be a tampon. How would you like Mom to hear that?