News on Sunday

Phone tapping: Are you being listened to?

It has the ability of turning some of the most powerful persons into paranoiacs. Ever wondered why some would ask you to come over instead of discussing matters over the phone? The clicks they hear on their phones, or the loops, would send them going through the roof. Phone tapping is one of the most powerful tools available to know what people who pose any threat are up to. [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"15513","attributes":{"class":"media-image wp-image-26078 alignleft","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","width":"229","height":"262","alt":"Phone Tapping"}}]]It is a closely guarded secret, rarely acknowledged by governments, now we have the confirmation: phone tapping is not a delusion of the paranoiacs (not in all cases), it is practised in Mauritius. The revelation came from none other than the Prime Minister this week in parliament. Replying to a question from opposition MP Shakeel Mohamed, the head of government said as it would be expected that there are currently no phone tapping in Mauritius. “However, he added, Section 12 of the Constitution makes provision for interference with our fundamental rights under certain circumstances.” The usual procedure is for an application to be made before a Judge in Chambers, to intercept, withhold or disclose to the police, a communication message. Thereafter, the Judge’s Order is forwarded to the public operator directing it to disclose the name and address of the alleged offender. Opposition MP Shakeel Mohamed justifies why he raised this issue. “I have reliable information and have no reason to doubt the facts. Several Members of the Opposition and Members of Government are being tapped. It is no secret, everyone knows about it. This question has caused a stir within some organisations. All these have confirmed my doubts,” he utters.

60 million phone calls spied in Spain El Mundo newspaper reported that a leaked NSA document showed the American agency had tracked 60 million phone calls, texts and emails in Spain between 10 December 2012 and 8 January 2013.  

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According to MP Mohamed, given that we live in a country where the Rule of Law prevails, phone tapping must not be done without Judge’s Order and without being duly authorised by the ICTA. “It is an infringement upon our constitutional rights to practice big brother.” Did he expect the Prime Minister to confirm the practice? Shakeel Mohamed says that he did not expect the latter to say otherwise. “I have shared the information I gathered with the Prime Minister. I expect him to dig out for the truth and verify the information. If he does this, it would show that he has the law and order issue at heart but if he does not show interest in finding the truth, this will demonstrate that he is retaining information.” For the MP, it is quite obvious that phone tapping and hacking is done without recourse to a Judge’s Order. “This practice has existed during previous regimes as well. Many countries have set up parliamentary select committees on this issue. We should also come up with this at the national assembly. I believe that we should review legislations and ensure that this practice does not continue as I have strong convictions that legal parameters are being infringed upon,” he highlights. Telephone tapping is also referred as wire tapping and it is the monitoring of telephone and internet conversations by a third party. Hence the name.

How is it done?

Director of Whitefield Business School Subheer Ramnoruth explains that a wired telephone network connecting two people is like an electric circuit forming a loop where voices travel between two phones in the form of fluctuating electrical currents. “It was fairly easy to bug traditional phones simply by introducing an extra load within the circuit in the form an additional phone through which the tapper could listen to the conversation,” he says. According to him, recently, a technical bug was discovered, which enables phones to be tapped even without even informing the service provider. “Every handset has to authenticate itself to the network, while the network doesn’t have to get itself authenticated by the handset. This glitch enables a man in the middle to attack, where the interceptor poses as the network or base station, to decrypt the encoding and then to release the signal to the original network. The interceptor connects to the original network by using authentic sim cards. A possible defence can be end-to-end encryption, but the present technology is very expensive and will also need handsets to be compatible with each other,” he reveals. [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"15514","attributes":{"class":"media-image aligncenter wp-image-26079","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","width":"721","height":"406","alt":"France-phone-tapping"}}]] IT Director Rajiv Seeras, confides that different technologies are used for phone tapping and the technology differs for landline and mobile. “Passive interceptions, as opposed to active interception, are ways to intercept mobile phone conversations without the caller or the phone operator noticing. Technologies consist of physical hardware equipment that can be used to intercept calls within a radius of a few kilometres.” On the other hand, active interception makes use of a rogue base station with strong signals to force the mobile phone to connect to while disconnecting with legitimate base station. In several jurisdictions, the law makes provisions in specific cases where phones can be tapped, more precisely when there is the risk of imminent harm. Phone tapping equipment is generally costly and are not available off the shelf, he explains.
NSA tapped Angela Merkel The US National Security Agency tapped phone calls involving German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her closest advisers for years and spied on the staff of her predecessors, according to WikiLeaks. NSA spying on Merkel and her staff had gone on far longer and more widely than previously realised. The NSA targeted 125 phone numbers of top German officials for long-term surveillance. WikiLeaks published what it said were three NSA intercepts of Merkel’s conversations, and data it said listed telephone numbers for the chancellor, her aides, her office and even her fax machine. The intercepts released detailed communications from Merkel in 2009 regarding the international financial crisis, with the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates in 2009 on Iran, and with advisers in 2011 on the eurozone crisis.
Rajiv Seeras claims the whole purpose of phone tapping is to extract information. “The hardware equipment is generally bundled with advanced software which can identify a target using different parameters. With the advent of technology, we see that there are better encryption techniques that are being developed to protect confidentiality, integrity and authenticity of a communication. But at the same time, the speed at which we find that those encryption algorithms are being broken into is alarming. To have better reliability requires more advanced systems which definitely come with a cost. Although the technology and equipment exist, it cannot assure to give fully reliable results.” [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"15515","attributes":{"class":"media-image wp-image-26080 alignleft","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","width":"191","height":"182","alt":"tapping-2"}}]]Who would want to tap your phone?
  • A parent monitoring their children’s phone activities
  • An employer
  • A rival company in business
  • A current or former spouse or partner
  • A software publisher
  • Your own government
  The IT Director maintains that it is difficult to know if a phone is tapped but there are some signs like constant distortion or hearing some form of background noise due to interference. There exists signs like phone battery getting depleted faster or the phone temperature rises even when not in use. However, we should not develop a paranoid mindset based on those symptoms to conclude that your phone is being tapped.
National Security Agency (NSA) phone tapping According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the US government, with assistance from major telecommunications carriers including AT&T, has engaged in massive, illegal dragnet surveillance of the domestic communications and communications records of millions of ordinary Americans since 2001. Secret government documents, published by the media in 2013, confirm the NSA obtains full copies of everything that is carried along major domestic fibre optic cable networks.
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