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  • Eyes and ears wide open; 2000

    Sophisticated telecommunication interception capabilities, of the sort that was used to unravel the cricket corruption scandal, are pushing the frontiers of communications intelligence.

    IN the age of digital communication, criminals are often better equipped but the line is also increasingly becoming unsafe. So, it appears, is running a large corporation, managing state secrets or just being a political dissident.

    Troops on border duties, even those on counter-terrorist duties in Jammu and Kashmir, have long known what Hansie Cronje and his associates evidently did not: no means of electronic communications is safe. Radio silence is maintained during all battle-fr ont operations. In emergencies, soldiers who speak Naga, Malayalam, or other languages, unlikely to be known to Pakistani signals intelligence, are pressed into service. Pakistan troops and irregulars on the Kargil heights last summer used a bewildering mix of Drassi, Shina, and Pushto in order to confuse Indian intelligence personnel, who were then forced to trawl the Kargil area for translators.

    Emerging material on interception capabilities of the United States makes clear just what the future might hold. The recently-exposed Project Echelon, for example, allows the U.S. to copy almost every piece of electronic communication worldwide: every fa x transmission, every e-mail messages, every mobile phone call, every other kind of telephone conversation.

    Few analysts of the cricket corruption scandal appear to have understood the capabilities of communication intelligence. The latest episode was, in fact, preceded by a series of successful technical telecommunication interception operations. Even as Indi an Airlines Flight IC 814 was on the tarmac in Kandahar last year, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) officials had a good idea of who had carried out the hijacking, and how – thanks to a series of calls made by the Harkatul Mujahideen’s Mumbai-based opera tive, Abdul Ahmed Latif, during the course of the hijacking. Latif used a mobile telephone, and also a pay phone owned by three brothers from Jogeshwari – Rafiq Sheikh, Javed Sheikh and Muzaffar Sheikh – to remain in contact with his handlers in Karachi.

    Among the calls Latif made was one to an Urdu-service staff reporter at the British Broadcasting Corporation headquarters in London, complaining about the Indian negotiators’ intransigence in Kandahar. What Latif did not know was that RAW personnel, who use sophisticated electronic equipment to scan thousands of international and domestic long-distance calls, were listening in. When RAW chief A.S. Dulat visited Jammu two days later to persuade a reluctant Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah to allow the rele ase of prisoners in exchange for the lives of the passengers on IC 814, he was able to promise rapid progress to secure justice. Working with the telephone numbers provided by RAW, Mumbai Crime Branch investigators tracked down Latif and his associates w ithin two days. Their interrogation was crucial in identifying the hijackers.


    At Menwith Hill in the U.K., one of the data analysis centres under Project Echelon, the world’s most sophisticated intelligence gathering network. The Echelon system allows the U.S. and its associates in the controversial project to monitor almost ev ery piece of electronic communication worldwide.

    Other technical operations have also been successful. In the summer of 1998, Punjab Police officials began an electronic communications sweep directed at the renewed activities of the Khalistan Liberation Force (KLF). Among the conversations that they st umbled upon were threat calls directed at affluent businessmen in Ludhiana, made by Dawood Ibrahim’s Nairobi-based associate Abu Salem, and from five unidentified mobile telephones in New Delhi. The numbers were passed on to the Delhi Crime Branch, where Inspector Ishwar Singh, responsible for the Hansie Cronje operation, was assigned charge of the investigation. The Delhi numbers were identified as belonging to the now-notorious Romesh Sharma.

    By November, Delhi Police and Intelligence Bureau officials say, they held hours of taped conversations between Sharma, Abu Salem and even top businessmen like Reliance industries chief Dhirubhai Ambani. Ambani, Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) offi cials now conducting the probe say, was being pressured to meet payments that two high-profile Mumbai stock brokers claimed as their dues. The deal may just have been closed had it not been for a fateful October 20 police raid on Sharma, carried out by c ity South Range officials who had no knowledge of the Crime Branch-Intelligence Bureau surveillance operation. Nothing significant has been heard of the affair since the CBI took charge, perhaps unsurprising given the agency’s track record in cases invol ving political corruption.

    Other technical operations have not been quite as high profile, but they have led to significant results in combating terrorism. The five cellphone numbers provided by the Punjab Police in the Romesh Sharma case had also led, earlier that year, to the di scovery of a major arms-running operation run from New Delhi’s maximum security Tihar Jail. Punjab Police officials had begun by investigating reports that the KLF’s Harnek Singh ‘Bhap’ had entered into an alliance with jailed Uttar Pradesh mafia don Om Prakash ‘Babloo’ Shrivastav. The KLF, the force’s informants said, had agreed to provide personnel to execute a series of kidnappings to raise funds, while the Shrivastav gang in turn would be responsible for making available safehouses.

    Surveillance led the Crime Branch investigators to some bizarre findings. Mobile phones activate the radio cells nearest to their users’ locations. The five cellphone numbers being monitored activated a single cell, that nearest to Tihar Jail. The Babbar Khalsa International (BKI), it transpired, had already cut a deal with criminals, using phones made available by corrupt prison administration officials, for the delivery of an explosives consignment. Delhi Police officials were waiting for the Haryana- registered truck when it arrived in New Delhi on August 12, 1998. A consignment of RDX or Research Department Explosive, weighing 18 kg, had been hiden in the space between the rim and the boot of the truck, along with four sophisticated electronic timin g devices.

    Major breakthroughs based on technical operations came as early as 1996. Shortly after massive blasts occured in New Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar market on May 21, 1996, RAW made available intercepts that led the Srinagar Special Operations Group (SOG) of the Ja mmu and Kashmir Police to Jammu and Kashmir Islamic Front (JKIF) operative Farida Wani. Soon after, her boss, Hilal Baig, was shot dead by the SOG on July 17, 1996. Telephone intercepts also led the Gujarat Police to one of the JKIF’s top associates, Ahm edabad underworld baron and Dawood Ibrahim associate Abdul Rashid Latif. Latif was arrested from New Delhi by a Gujarat Police Anti-Terrorist Squad on October 10, 1996, and was killed later while attempting to escape from custody in Ahmedabad.

    Although intelligence officials are unwilling to discuss details, sources say dozens of recent operations targeting the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s activities outside Jammu and Kashmir have been similarly based on communications intelligence. Khalistan terrorists have also been hit through technical means; the January 1999 arrest of a Babbar Khalsa operative who crossed over from Pakistan is one instance. In 1998, Indian intelligence personnel monitoring calls from two U.S.- based Khalistan financiers detected su ccessive calls to a mobile number in Chandigarh. Monitoring led the local police to the gates of the Burail Jail, where, it turned out, Beant Singh assassination-accused Jagtar Singh Hawara had been using the telephone not only to organise a jailbreak bu t to order pizzas, using the convenient address of the Jail Superintendent’s office.

    JUST how, then, does communications intelligence work? Contrary to the popular perception, intercepting communications is fairly easy. Scanners can pluck mobile phone signals from the air, and many Western countries have an underground business in fake s ubscriber-identity cards. On August 27 last year, for example, the New York Police arrested three men who were intercepting pager messages meant for the city’s Mayor and Police Commissioner and then selling the contents to media outlets. A conference cal l between U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his party colleagues was similarly intercepted, and the transcript published in The New York Times. Commercially available equipment even allows remote espionage on the text being typed on a computer screen, or eavesdroppers to listen in to conversations being conducted over a hundred metres away.

    Since 1997, however, is a growing body of material on the world’s largest and most sophisticated communications intelligence network, codenamed Echelon. Now the subject of growing controversy following revelations that Echelon was used by the U.S. for co mmercial espionage directed at its North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies, notably France, the organisation emerged from a 1947 United Kingdom-U.S. treaty on sharing intelligence. Canada, Australia and New Zealand later joined the treaty.

    Unlike routine espionage operations, Echelon does not target individual electronic communications. It instead gathers vast amounts of traffic on satellites, sub-sea cables, microwave relay stations and high frequency radio. This body of information is su bjected to computer analysis at Echelon centres around the world, notably at Menwith Hill in the U.K., Pine Gap in Australia, Buckley Field near Denver in the U.S., and Bad Aibling in Germany. The computers separate the data gathered into fax, data and v oice communication. This body of material is then subject to searches for certain key words, for example ‘atomic’ or ‘missile’, or for specific telephone numbers and e-mail addresses.

    A WELTER of means is available in the Echelon system to monitor almost all long-distance electronic communication. According to a report by expert Duncan Campbell, which formed the core of discussions in the European Parliament in 1998, U.S. Central Inte lligence Agency (CIA) satellites are central to the Echelon system. Satellites of the Magnum, Orion and Rutley class can target very high frequency (VHF) radios, cellular phones, pagers and mobile data links across the globe. Since only a fraction of mic rowave signals in fact arrive at the receiving station, and the rest pass into space, such traffic is also vulnerable. Satellites of the Mercury class target microwave communications, which carry much inter-city traffic. Other satellites intercept traffi c directed at communication satellites, including the Intelsat system.

    Embassies and High Commissions form a second important chain in the Echelon system. Foreign missions are located in capital cities and important business centres, which also tend to be the hub for inter-city microwave networks. Since diplomatic premises are not subject to national regulations, most missions install surveillance equipment targeted at their host countries. In some cases, Echelon systems tap directly into the telecommunications infrastructure. Campbell discovered that the Menwith Hill stat ion, for example, taps directly into the British Telecom microwave hub, which receives traffic from sub-sea transatlantic cables. Some media reports have even accused U.S.-based corporations, such as Microsoft of cooperating with their governments to bui ld surveillance mechanisms into software.

    Key word searches are just one of the means through which Echelon surveillance works. Since such searches are most effective for text, there has been extensive research on software that can translate voice communications into computer-readable characters . Campbell’s report to the European Parliament suggests that such technology is, at best, of only limited reliability. There has, however, been success in the matter of voice recognition software, which enables computer systems to pick out an individual speaking through the mass of intercepted data. In theory, for example, Echelon systems could detect Osama bin Laden once he initiated a conversation.

    The Echelon network is not the world’s only major intelligence gathering operation, although it is by far the world’s most sophisticated. At least 30 countries operate large-scale communications intelligence operations, including India and Pakistan. The largest are outside Echelon is the Russian FAPSI, with some 54,000 employees. China also maintains a large establishment, with two stations directed at Russia in tandem with the U.S. There are no firm figures on Echelon’s budget, but reliable estimates s uggest that over $20 billion is spent worldwide on communication intelligence-related activities. Much of India’s effort has been focussed on military-related signals intelligence, which acquires not only communications but also radar data and details of Army movements.

    Nor is it clear whether fighting crime or terrorism is the sole concern of major communications intelligence organisations. The 1998 European Parliament report on electronic espionage claims that U.S. intelligence intercepted conversations between govern ment officials in Brazil and the French firm Thompson-CSF. It used the information to secure a $1.3 billion contract for Thompson-CSF’s U.S. rival, Raytheon. Mike Frost, in his book Spyworld, claims that Canadian agents tapped the U.S. Ambassador’ s conversations to undercut that country’s bid for a $2.5 billion wheat deal. Frost, himself a former operative of the Canadian communication security establishment, claims that British intelligence even invited their counterparts in Canada to place unde r surveillance two politicians suspected by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of political disloyalty.

    NEW developments could push the frontiers of communications intelligence even further. In January, U.S. civil rights organisations challenged new rules which would compel telecommunications firms to provide on demand, without a warrant, the exact locatio n of mobile phone users to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The new rules, which came about as a result of the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act of 1994, would also mean that companies would have to deliver packet mode communicat ions, those used on the Internet, to the FBI. Echelon had allowed intelligence agencies to bypass laws forbidding unauthorised surveillance of U.S. and U.K. citizens by the simple expedient of asking their alliance counterparts, not bound by such laws, t o carry out the task.

    There is little anecdotal material, and even less reliable literature, on the Indian capabilities in this field. It is known, for example, that intelligence agencies compelled pager and mobile phone companies to install surveillance equipment, but only o ther technical means that are at their disposal are not known. Few officials are willing to discuss the subject. Informed sources, however, told Frontline that RAW did have facilities to scan communications for key words, but that both the softwar e and the hardware used left more than a little to be desired. Its voice recognition capabilities too are relatively limited. Police organisations, for their part, have minimal access to such technology, which is limited relatively to simple operations s uch as mobile phone scanning. And while the pending Information Technology Bill of 1999 will give intelligence agencies wide powers to intercept Internet traffic, existing legal restrictions on telephone interception mean that little such evidence can be admitted to have been gathered in the first place, let alone used in trial courts.

    When news of the cricket corruption scandal broke, commentators claimed variously that it was impossible to intercept mobile phone conversations or that the Delhi Police had secured a technological feat. Neither was true. Intercepting communications, voi ce or otherwise, is almost industrial in scale, more automated perhaps than any manufacturing process. Be sure when you next send an e-mail out into cyberspace that its recipient might not be the only one to read it with interest.

    Volume 17 – Issue 09, Apr. 29 – May 12, 2000


    Find this story at 29 April 2000

    Copyrights © 2000, Frontline.