THEIR clandestine activities may be directly in the spotlight, but Australian spies have for decades been listening in on our neighbours.
Modern spooks have two main methods of tapping the mobile phones of people of interest in cities such as Jakarta. The first option is to install a physical bugging device in the actual handset, to forward calls to a third number – but this requires access to the handset.
For high-security targets, Australian agents use electronic scanners and very powerful computers to monitor phone numbers of interest via microwave towers (small metal towers that look like venetian blinds) located on top of buildings across Jakarta and all modern cities.
The latter was employed to tap the phones of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, his wife and key ministers.
Getting hold of a handset is a tricky business so the preferred method for the spooks employed by the Australian Signals Directorate (formerly Defence Signals Directorate) is to monitor microwave phone towers located on top of most buildings in Jakarta and indeed any other major city.
The material, known at this point as “first echelon”, is captured by computers located in secure rooms at the Australian Embassy where information is filtered before it is forwarded by secure means to super computers located at ASD headquarters. They are located inside the maximum security building ‘M’, protected by high voltage electric fences, at Defence’s Russell Office complex in Canberra. Here it is processed and analysed as “second echelon” product.
In less busy locations, or where the target phone number is known, an off-the-shelf scanner can be programmed to intercept mobile phone calls.
In cities such as Jakarta enterprising business people now offer a mobile bugging service where for a fee of between $300 and $1000 they will arrange to “borrow” a mobile phone, insert a bugging device and then return it to a relieved owner. Whenever the phone rings or is used to access a network the call is diverted to another handset or recording device.
Government staff understand that if their phone goes missing and then turns up they should dispose of it and get a new one.
But for the average citizen, say a teacher at an English speaking school in Jakarta whose phone was bugged by an angry ex-girlfriend, phone tapping is a serious matter. And it is more common than many expatriates might think.
There is a thriving business in phone tapping for private or industrial or state espionage reasons in cities such as Jakarta, Singapore and Bangkok. Industrial espionage is widespread in cities around the world including Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.
Compared to the operations of ASD and its powerful scanners, super computers and army of analysts these operations are small beer.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott was quick to point out in the wake of the phone tapping scandal that every country spied and he was right.
However Indonesia has nowhere near the capacity for espionage that Australia and our close “five eyes” allies – the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand – posses.
After the 2002 Bali bombings the DSD, Australian Federal Police and Telstra went to Indonesia and showed Indonesian intelligence agencies how to tap into the networks of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah (JI).
Unlike Australia much of Indonesia’s electronic surveillance capacity is directed at internal problems such as the insurgencies in Aceh and West Papua.
According to one of Australia’s leading experts on electronic spying, Professor Des Ball from the Australian National University, there is really no point in conducting such intercept operations unless a country has the whole picture. That is satellite communications, cable communications and radio communications.
“Microwave mobile phone calls are very hit and miss,” he said.
Australia owns the big picture thanks to an expensive and extensive network of listening posts in Jakarta, Bangkok and Port Moresby and powerful satellite ground stations at HMAS Harman in Canberra, Shoal Bay near Darwin, Morundah near Wagga in NSW, Cabarlah near Toowoomba in Qld and Geraldton in WA.
This interception network is monitoring communications from Singapore to the Pacific Islands including Indonesia’s Palapa satellite.
Professor Ball said there had been huge growth in Australia’s eavesdropping capacity in recent years. For example the number of dishes at Shoal Bay has gone from six to 15 and Geraldton has more than doubled its capacity including six American dishes for the exclusive use of the National Security Agency (NSA) whose lax security allowed Edward Snowden to abscond with top-secret information that is now being leaked.
Unfortunately Australian taxpayers have no way of knowing how much is spent on these facilities or even how many staff are employed by the top-secret ASD. The numbers used to appear in the Defence annual report, but not anymore.
Professor Ball said successive governments had allowed the electronic spooks to have a virtual free rein.
“When briefings about the phone intercepts from SBY and his wife came in the government should have ordered the tapping to stop,” Professor Ball said.
“It is important to have the capacity but you only use it when there is a conflict. Put it in, test it and keep it up to date, but don’t use it because unless you have to because it will come out.”
Professor Ball also slammed Mr Abbott for saying that other countries (Indonesia) were doing exactly what Australia did, because they weren’t and they can’t.
“They are not doing what we are doing and Abbott should have apologised or done what Bob Hawke did with Papua New Guinea in 1983.”
Prime Minister Hawke went to Port Moresby after it was revealed that Australia spied on politicians there, but before he left he ordered the spooks switch to all monitoring equipment off for 48 hours. He was then able to say that Australia wasn’t doing it although as journalist Laurie Oakes pointed out he had to be “very careful with his tenses”.
Tapping a friendly foreign leader’s phone is fraught enough. Recording the fact on clear power point slides and handing them to another country is just plain dumb.
IAN MCPHEDRAN NATIONAL DEFENCE WRITER
NEWS LIMITED NETWORK
NOVEMBER 21, 2013 6:34PM
News Ltd 2013 Copyright