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A whisper down the line

Barry Fox with a user's guide to phone tapping

EVERYONE has at some time or other been "sure" that their telephone is bugged. Usually it is not. Clicks and crackles on the line can be caused by dirty contacts at the local exchange, or a crossed line. British Telecom has never pretended that the telephone is a secure instrument. A friend of mine once got a crossed line into Buckingham Palace.

In September 1974, when I was writing an article about letter bombs, I talked by phone with an editor about a potentially explosive weedkiller on open sale at my local Boots. Two hours later, the branch manager got a phone call from his head office telling him to remove it at once. Coincidence? Who cares. If tapping my phone helped the police to stop the bombers, more power to their plugs. What grates, however, is the hypocrisy.

In 1985, after a slap-down by the European Court of Human Rights, the British government gave some figures on official phone taps. During 1984, the Home Secretary authorised 352 taps, the Foreign Secretary 115 and the Secretary of State for Scotland 71. Heaven knows how many lines were being tapped without anyone's knowledge.

The Interception of Communications Act 1985 came into force last April with the promise of curbing such abuses. It merely confirms that only a secretary of state, usually in the Home Office, can authorise a tap to prevent crime, benefit national security or safeguard the economic wellbeing of the country. Anyone else gets a £2000 fine, two years in jail or both - provided they are caught and brought to book.

A panel of independent lawyers, sitting as the Interception of Communications Tribune investigates complaints. The p. i. government now refuses to give figures on even official tapping and the tribunal says it has not yet decided which complaint statistics to release, or when or how, or even if it will release them. After 10 April this year, the tribunal will no longer be able to use the current excuse that it has not yet been in business for a full year.

If the tribunal finds that a tap has been properly authorised it simply tells the complainant that "There has been no contravention of the Act." It says the same thing if no tap is found. So the complainant gets the same answer under two, radically different, circumstances - and has no idea how and where the tribunal looked.

Experts in paranoia will tell you how lines can be tapped by clever technical tricks. The facility TKO (TrunK Offering) can tag trunk calls with an inaudible code and break into an existing connection. But the easy way is at a local exchange. Essentially, all it needs is an extra pair of wires connected between the subscriber's line and a telephone earpiece or tape recorder.

The connection is made by engineers at the exchange, working in a reserved area to which most employees of British Telecom have no access. The tapped subscriber is unlikely to know, until something happens - such as weedkiller disappearing from a shop shelf.

The main bar to tapping is time. Twenty Years ago, the Hollywood film The President's Analyst neatly summed up the problem. It conjured up the vision of a United States in which every phone was tapped, with only robots left with the time to listen. Modem technology offers a solution similar to this. Speech-recognition circuitry listens for key words or accents -- such as the word "bomb" in an Irish brogue - and then switches on a tape recorder. But someone somewhere still has to listen to the tapes.

Recently, LIM Golding, the MP for Newcastle under Lyme, had good reason to fear that her phone was tapped. The phone rang and her office heard someone at the other end talking about "going off duty". Later, the phone replayed a conversation she had had previously. It is unlikely that this was the result of an official tap. The last thing a professional eavesdropper wants to do is to inject damning signals back down the line, whether from a microphone or tape recorder.

Any business can quite legally buy or hire equipment to log telephone calls, such as a device called Tiger. This prints out a record of every call made through the company switchboard. Primarily intended to deter office staff from phoning their friends long distance, the system can also nail leaks of industrial information. When one Northern university installed a Tiger, several laboratory researchers had to buy wristwatches. They had previously relied on the speaking clock.

Employees of British Telecom are bound by the Official Secrets Act and the Telecommunications Act. Few would dare to ng an unauthorised tap. But if a company boss wants to behave like an inquisitive switchboard operator, and listen into staff phone calls, then there is probably no legal bar-just as the law cannot prevent a father from picking up the extension phone and monitoring a child's call.

Brokers in the City are currently wondering how investigators may have collected evidence of insider trading. To net one incriminating conversation, it may be necessary to eavesdrop on many. Others in the City are wondering what they may have said on the telephone while British Telecom was investigating a possible fraud involving the billing of foreign calls.

The future will feed paranoia. There are around 6000 telephone exchanges in Britain. Until recently, all used primitive mechanical relays to switch analogue signals. Now, every working day British Telecom converts another of these exchanges to System X or similar digital technotop. There are already more than 300 digital exchanges with solid-state switching, desiped to create conference calls, re-route lines and log numbers. The origin and destination of any call can be displayed on a computer screen.

This is good news for the police, who will be able to trace a kidnap call within seconds. It is also good news for authorised tappers. The tappers' extra connections are inaudible, and even harder to detect than previously.

But there will still remain one sure way of finding out whether a phone is tapped. Just put a simple fault on the line, for instance by disconnecting a wire, and call BT's engineers using another phone. If they arrive within minutes rather than days, be on your guard. If someone really is tapping your phone, they'll want to get it working again quickly.


  [Chaos CD]
[HaBi 2]    A whisper down the line
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