Making phone calls in a tapped country
'It looks like they want to be caught'
By Rob Tuinstra
Modern people can always be reached. We have a phone, fax and e-mail at home, and for on the road we have the handy cellular phone that can be used for several purposes. Modern telecommunication equipment does not only make our lives a lot easier, but also the job of the police. The telephone tap is the most effective weapon of the police. Small and big drug ‘criminals’ think often that they arranged their operations well but are often caught because they blurt out everything on the phone, or trust too much on voice-distortion or crypto-equipment. Highlife tips on telephone-taps.
In 1996 the record ‘Tapping in Holland’ was published, in which the Scientific Research and Documentation Centre extensively reported the tapping behavior of the Dutch police. That investigation proved that wiretapping became more and more a popular method of investigation of the police. In 1986 1080 telephones were tapped, in 1994 3284 telephones were tapped. The four big areas (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Arnhem) tapped more than the other fifteen areas tapped together. An average telephone tap takes 43 days, but a highlight was 547 days. In absolute numbers, Holland taps more than the US, Great Britain or Germany. The increase of the number of wiretaps has two causes. First the increased telephone-use, but more important is the different approach of criminality by the police. In the early days the police began after committing a crime, nowadays the police conforms themselves with he magic word ‘organized crime’ more on tracking down networks of organizations. And tapping is very popular with that.
It is made very easy for the police. A policeman told in the ‘tapping in Holland’ investigation: ‘It is like they want to be caught. They are very lazy and lax.’ With ‘they’ the policemen points at caught criminals in Holland that talk too much. Starters in the business do not take wiretaps in consideration, while the more experienced ones trust too much on the use of so-called guarded terms (‘is that bunch of flower-bulbs already in?’). Within short times the police discovers these codes. And even when the tapped person keeps his mouth shut, then there are often friends or relatives that are talkative. According to research bureau Jansen & Janssen that in a guide about tapping extensively examined the Dutch wiretappings, drug trafficking was high on the list of matters in which wiretaps has been used for evidence. So the Urka-file, one of the most sensational drugs trafficker of the last years, has many pages (hundreds) with reports of wiretaps. Ordinary phones, phone booths or cellular phones, everything is tapped. And sometimes it can give you a stroke of luck. Once the police tapped some phone booths in a part of The Hague, coincidentally an animal activist called in one of those to claim an assault on a wholesale business in meat. Off course the phone booths were observed, so the activist and his partner soon were caught. In the above example coincidence was important, but sometimes it is made very easy for the police to gather evidence to arrest criminals. The daily ‘Telegraaf’ reported on January 5th that the police in Dordrecht could round up a cocaine gang just by letting the cellular phones of the arrested suspects ring. The phones were attached during house searches in Rotterdam and Dordrecht. To the surprise of the policeman the phones kept ringing for days. One policeman said ‘when the phone of one suspect was not answered, the phone automatically was linked to the cellular phone of the other suspect. So the police could easily prove the context between the members of the gang. It delivered also some confessions'.
.'Paranoia is a refine way of reality’, according to one of the main actors of the American scifi-thriller Strange Days to the reproach that he would be paranoid. It could be the device of Jansen & Janssen, because according to their investigation no way of communication is safe any more. It is even worse, due to more and more modern technology processed in communication apparatus, tapping is getting simple. And sometimes it is not only tapping. For instance: let us look closer to the cellular phone, fifteen years ago an almost unknown phenomenon. Small, handy phones in the eighties were car-phones that used the analogue car-phone network ATF3. There were cellular phones on the market, you can see them in old American TV-series, but they were as big (and heavy) as one liter of milk. By introducing small processors and reducing the electric current, the cellular phone became smaller and handier. A patchwork of different system networks that were not connected to each other was created. In the early nineties the European Telecommunication Standards Institute took care of the fact that the Global System Mobile (GSM) could be used universally. And although the providers used different MHz-frequencies, introducing the dual-band took care of that problem. Although we let most technical details to itself, it is impossible to not deepen the principle of the GSM. Because the most important element of mobile phoning, namely talking to each other without your telephone having a connection through a cable with another phone, means that you send your call via a frequency by the air to a transmitting station that send it along via a network to another mobile phone. The cellular phone you have in your pocket is not only a phone, but also a transmitter and receiver of signals. And that is were a big advantage appears to Big Brother, besides the danger of tapping a conversation. Big Brother can always determine on which location you exactly are.
A GSM is always in connection with the closest transmitting and receiving station of your network. By directional antennas the station knows from which direction your GSM signal is. Also the station measures with some regularity what distance you have to the station. By measuring you signal in three stations, they are able measure your location in one hundred meter.
Paranoid? Big Brother? No. A message from the NRC Handelsblad of December 29, 1997: ‘The Swiss police had secretly spied on the users of cellular phones in the GSM-network, according to a Swiss paper. According to the paper the used data were kept for over half a year. It is not about tapping the wires, but constant registration of the spot of the phone within the GSM-network. A computer has to know constantly this place to keep the subscriber connected. Swiss officers of justice call the data ‘a treasure of information with which criminals can be tracked’. This is a very efficient way of ‘investigation’, according to examining magistrate Renato Walti in the Swiss paper'
Besides the location via the GSM, it is very simple to tap GSM conversations. Because your GSM know several numbers. What to think of the IMEI-number, or the International Mobile Equipment Identifier. That is the number with which your company (KPN or Libertel) recognizes your phone. That number goes to three lists when you get connected, in which is kept up to date which one is stolen or that is permitted but must be kept an eye on. And than you phone knows another number, the IMSI-number. This International Mobile Subscriber Identity-number is on your SIM-card, or the chip-card that is in the phone. Also this number is transmitted when you are talking on the phone, because the closest transmitting station needs that number (to which your subscriber’s number is connected). Well, there is a little device that is called IMSI-catcher. How does it work?
Suppose some suspect uses a telephone the police does not know yet. Then the IMSI-catcher is a miracle. This mobile device acts like it is the closest GSM-station and all mobile phones in the surroundings check in. Via the IMSI-catcher you can not only hear the calls, but can also trace the location of the phones and the bearers. Alarming is that the law is not properly fit with the developed practice of new tapping techniques. On this moment new laws are prepared about the successor of the Domestic Security Forces, the AIVD. According to the bills the jurisdictions of the AIVD will be enlarged. Besides an almost unlimited way of tapping, the AIVD gets the authority to keep messages in crypto as long as the code is broken.
That Dutch authorities want to increase the number of wiretaps was also concluded from a report of the Consultative Body Tapping, in which telecommunication providers and the police and the AIVD consult together. On this moment the capacity of the Government is 1,500 taps at the same time on the net and 2,000 on the mobile phones. An AIVD correspondent told that it could be quickly extended to 30,000 taps. With the eye on the coming European Soccer Championships, the police pursuits to tap GSM-using hooligans.