From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]
Crashing the Wiretapper’s Ball
BY Thomas Greene / Jun, 01, 2006
CRYSTAL CITY, Virginia — The dingy hotel corridor was populated with
suits, milling about and radiating airs of defensive hostility. They
moved in close-knit groups, rounding a stranger or a rival group
conspicuously, the way cats do. They spoke in whispers. They glanced
nervously over their shoulders as they took calls on their cell phones,
then darted swiftly into alcoves.
They were government officials, telephone company honchos, military
officers, three-letter-agency spooks and cops, all brought together by
salesmen dealing in the modern equipment of surveillance. It was my job
to learn what they were up to.
They’d gathered for the ISS World Conference, a trade show featuring
the latest in mass communications intercept gear, held in the
Washington, D.C., suburb of Crystal City, Virginia. Situated
conveniently between Reagan National Airport and the Pentagon, Crystal
City is an artificial place dominated by conference centers and hotels,
set up to accommodate the endless, and often secret, intercourse
between the U.S. military and its myriad itinerant contractors,
lobbyists, consultants and trainers. They rotate in and out, civilians
using the airport, military personnel taking the subway from the
Pentagon, with Crystal City as the intersection in a figure-eight
circuit of constant activity.
Back in the narrow hotel corridor, vendors manned their booths,
exhibiting the latest gadgets for mass electronic surveillance:
machines capable of scouring the data streams of millions of
subscribers — industrial-strength kits for packet interception and
analysis, RF interception, and voice and keyword recognition.
These devices are a bonanza for the communications hardware industry,
vouchsafed by the U.S. Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement
Act of 1994, or CALEA, which mandates that all new telephone company
gear must be wiretap-friendly, or “CALEA compliant,” according to the
popular euphemism. This has led to a seller’s market with equipment
makers pushing their dual-use kits with exceptional confidence. The
sales pitch has evolved beyond the traditional points of reliability,
scalability, total cost of ownership and ease of deployment to exploit
the hard-sell undercurrents of mass-scale commerce that’s mandated by
law and funded by taxpayers who are powerless to review the deals and
evaluate their various costs and benefits to society.
While U.S. telephone companies are well accustomed to CALEA
requirements (designed originally to make mobile phone networks as
wiretap-friendly as land-line systems), the Federal Communications
Commission has declared itself competent to expand the act to cover
voice over internet protocol outfits and internet service providers as
well. This expansion has been challenged in federal court, and the
conflict has boiled down to a simple phrase in the law, exempting
providers of “information services” (as opposed to communications
services) from CALEA obligations. The Department of Justice, ever eager
for opportunities to plug law enforcement into the internet at the most
basic levels, claims that ISPs, like telephone companies, are
communications services, on grounds that instant messaging, VOIP and
e-mail constitute a significant replacement for traditional
The FCC is in complete agreement with the Justice Department, and has
issued its demand for compliance by May 14, 2007. The case, currently
on appeal, is pending in a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C.,
where, comically, one judge characterized the FCC’s legal arguments as
“gobbledygook.” Thus it’s possible that only VOIP services that use the
public switched telephone network will be covered by the CALEA, leaving
peer-to-peer VOIP outfits and ISPs in the clear. A decision should
arrive in a few months’ time.
Despite this uncertainty, ISPs (and universities) have become new sales
targets for the surveillance equipment industry — fresh leads, so to
speak — and the hustle is uniform and loud: “CALEA is coming, and
you’d better be ready.”
In the conference rooms, salesmen pitched their solutions for “lawful
interception.” In attendance were the generally responsible
representatives of North American and Western European government
and law enforcement, but also numerous representatives of naked state
control in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. The phrase “lawful
interception” might have meaning in the United States, Canada and
Europe, but this was the ISS world conference, after all, with
attendees from more than 30 countries.
Narus was there, maker of the kit fingered by Mark Klein and allegedly
used with impunity by the National Security Agency at numerous AT&T
facilities for mass, domestic internet surveillance, and, the company
boasts, used by Shanghai Telecom “to block ‘unauthorized’ internet
There were European heavyweights like Ericsson and Siemens, American
giants like Raytheon and light-heavyweights like VeriSign and Agilent,
along with a vast host of leaner, more specialized, surveillance
outfits such as Verint, Narus and the like. They offered equipment and
services capable of every manner of radio frequency and packet
interception, with user interfaces and database structures designed to
manage and deliver not just information but “actionable data,” properly
organized and formatted for easy prosecutions.
Certain conference sessions, according to the schedule, were “open to
sworn law enforcement agents only.” But there was no discrimination
between the more punctilious law enforcement agencies of democratic
nations and those hailing from quarters where darker practices are
The last thing anyone involved wanted was publicity. Unfortunately, I
had a job to do, although it would be difficult; the press had been
strenuously dis-invited, and Wired News’ efforts to get credentialed
for the event firmly rebuffed. I spent my first day lurking in public
areas of the hotel. In the lobby, two nattily dressed men with
Caribbean accents were being hustled by an American salesman. The
Caribbean fellows stiffened upon my approach, and warily lowered their
voices. I buried my nose in the paper and listened.
I could hear little of what the two potential customers said, but the
salesman, God bless him, was a loudmouth, and I was able to piece
together parts of the conversation from his various announcements. It
seemed elements of the deal that he was attempting to close were
challenging. This may have had to do with his customers’ qualifications
to take delivery of surveillance equipment, perhaps because they
weren’t legitimate government representatives, or the government that
employed them was subject to U.S. export restrictions. I never learned
the exact problem with getting the equipment into the customers’ hands,
but it was obvious that there was one.
The salesman concluded with a hearty recap. “I’m glad we had the
chance to meet in person; this is not a conversation I’d want to have
on the phone, for obvious reasons,” he roared. Everyone laughed heartily.
Later, at the bar, I sat beside three Americans: two cops and a
civilian police employee. They bitched about how difficult RF
interception is, how the equipment is complicated and its user
interfaces mysterious, and the difficulty of getting adequate funds and
properly trained personnel to carry out surveillance effectively.
Grant money is to be avoided, they agreed. It’s got strings attached —
strings like performance milestones and complicated reporting demands.
And on top of that, there’s such an assload of damned frequencies, and
it’s such a trial just to get the kit dialed in. You can waste hours
listening to TV instead of the subject’s cell phone. But all the brass
understands is hard evidence leading to arrests, they whined.
This was suggestive stuff, but it’s not what I came for. On day two, it
was time to make a move. I went to the registration booth and
requested a pass and a press fee waiver. “The conference isn’t open
to the press,” a receptionist explained with a fluty tone of voice and
an android smile. A uniformed security guard took a step closer, for
I withdrew, bloodied but unbowed.
In the bar that night, things got interesting. A group of men
associated with the Pen-Link and Lincoln electronic surveillance
systems came in. I exchanged small talk with them for a bit, then moved
to their table. Although I had identified myself as a journalist, an
enthusiastic reseller of the equipment decided to hold forth. We drank
a great deal, so I won’t name him.
“I’m not much concerned about wiretaps in America and Europe,” I’d been
saying to one of the Pen-Link engineers, “but I wonder if it bothers
you to consider what this technology can do in the hands of repressive
governments with no judicial oversight, no independent legislature.”
Our man interrupted. “You need to educate yourself,” he said with a
sneer. “I mean, that’s a classic journalist’s question, but why are you
hassling these guys? They’re engineers. They make a product. They don’t
sell it. What the hell is it to them what anyone does with it?”
“Well, it’s quite an issue,” I said. “This is the equipment of
totalitarianism, and the only things that can keep a population safe
are decent law and proper oversight. I want to know what they think
when they learn that China, or Syria, or Zimbabwe is getting their
hands on it.”
“You really need to educate yourself,” he insisted. “Do you think this
stuff doesn’t happen in the West? Let me tell you something. I sell
this equipment all over the world, especially in the Middle East. I
deal with buyers from Qatar, and I get more concern about proper legal
procedure from them than I get in the USA.”
“Well, perhaps the Qataris are conscientious,” I said, “and I’m
prepared to take your word on that, but there are seriously oppressive
governments out there itching to get hold of this stuff.”
He sneered again. “Do you think for a minute that Bush would let legal
issues stop him from doing surveillance? He’s got to prevent a
terrorist attack that everyone knows is coming. He’ll do absolutely
anything he thinks is going to work. And so would you. So why are you
bothering these guys?”
“It’s a valid question,” I insisted. “This is powerful stuff. In the
wrong hands, it could ruin political opponents; it could make the
state’s power impossible to challenge. The state would know basically
everything. People would be getting rounded up for thought crimes.”
“You’re not listening,” he said. “The NSA is using this stuff. The DEA,
the Secret Service, the CIA. Are you kidding me? They don’t answer to
you. They do whatever the hell they want with it. Are you really that
naïve? Now leave these guys alone; they make a product, that’s all.
It’s nothing to them what happens afterward. You really need to educate
On day three, the last day of the conference, I had nothing left to
gain from working the periphery, hence nothing to lose from being
tossed out, so I strolled past the android and the uniformed guard. No
one challenged me. I chatted with vendors. I grabbed brochures from
their tables and handouts in the conference rooms. I hung out on the
veranda and smoked with fellow tobacco addicts.
The best conversation I had was with Robert van Bosbeek of the Dutch
National Police. I asked him if he was tempted to buy anything.
“Not really,” he said with a laugh. “But it’s always good to see what’s
on offer. Basically, we’re three or four years ahead of all this.”
He said that in the Netherlands, communications intercept capabilities
are advanced and well established, and yet, in practice, less
problematic than in many other countries. “Our legal system is more
transparent,” he said, “so we can do what we need to do without
controversy. Transparency makes law enforcement easier, not more
By noon on day three, the conference had wound down. The final thing I
needed was the forbidden packet, with its CD of the slides from the
presentations. I would have it in spite of the android. Indeed, because
of the android.
I waited in the lobby. A group of Koreans came down the stairs. I know
this because they spoke Korean, and few outsiders speak it. It’s not a
popular language, like French or English.
As it happens, I can speak it a little. Most Koreans are charmed by
foreigners who can mutter even a few words of their mother tongue, so I
chatted for a bit, and asked if I might copy the conference CD onto my
notebook computer. They were happy to oblige.
Naturally, this forbidden object contained nothing that could justify
keeping it from a journalist. There were no stunning revelations about
new intercept equipment designs, capabilities or techniques. Making it
unavailable was just another expression of the conference director’s
small-minded attitude of hostility toward the press.
An attendee told me that during one presentation, a discussion arose
about whether the press should be invited to future ISS conferences.
Some of those present believed that secrecy only leads to speculation,
which is usually worse for trade than the facts. Others believed that
reporters are too ignorant to write competently about the secret
intercourse between big business and law enforcement, and should be
told as little as possible in hopes that they’ll have nothing to write.
Judging by my own experiences, it was clear that the second line of
reasoning had prevailed.
But it’s foolish to be secretive: A determined reporter can’t be
thwarted, and it’s better that one should have more rather than less
information to work with.
It’s ironic that spooks so often remind us that we’ve got nothing to
fear from their activities if we’ve got nothing nasty to hide, while
they themselves are rarely comfortable without multiple layers of
secrecy, anonymity and plausible deniability. While there was little or
nothing at the conference worth keeping secret, the sense of paranoia
was constant. The uniformed guard posted to the entrance was there to
intimidate, not to protect. The restrictions on civilians attending the
law enforcement agency sessions were, I gather, a cheap marketing
gesture to justify their $6,500-per-head entrance fee with suggestions
of secret information that the average network-savvy geek wouldn’t have
In the end, all this surveillance gear and attendant hype becomes
meaningless with simple precautions like encrypted VOIP, a good
implementation of virtual private networks, and proxies and SSH for web
surfing, IM, internet relay chat, webmail and the like. Skype’s VOIP
service is encrypted but closed-source. Still, there’s SpeakFreely, a
peer-to-peer, open-source VOIP app; Zfone, an open-source VOIP crypto
plug-in from PGP honcho Phil Zimmermann; Invisible IRC, an open-source
IRC proxy implementation that includes anonymization and encryption
features, plus other dodges too numerous to mention.
The popular law enforcement myth is that crooks are getting ever more
sophisticated in their use of modern technology, so the police have got
to acquire more “sophisticated” point-and-drool equipment to catch
them. We find versions of this incantation in virtually every Justice
Department press release or speech related to CALEA. But these tools —
especially in the IP realm — are not so much sophisticated as
complicated and very expensive. They’re a bad alternative to
old-fashioned detective work involving the wearing down of shoes and
dull stakeout sessions in uncomfortable quarters such as automobiles.
The chief impulse behind this law enforcement gizmo fetish is laziness,
and it’s a bad trend: The more policemen we have fiddling with computer
equipment, the fewer we have doing proper legwork.
The windup is that garden-variety crooks will remain those most
susceptible to remote, electronic surveillance, while sophisticated,
tech-savvy bad guys will continue operating below the radar. CALEA and
its most potent technological offspring are inadequate to catch the
people who most need catching. The project of “lawful interception” is
huge, grotesquely expensive, controversial, infused with unnecessary
secrecy and often useless against the most important suspects it
purports to target.
It poses a tremendous threat to human rights and dignity in countries
without adequate legal safeguards, and still invites occasional abuses
in countries with them. Its costs are paid by citizens who are
deliberately kept in the dark about how much they’re paying for it, how
effective it is in fighting crime and how susceptible it is to abuse.
And that’s the way the entire cast of characters involved wants to keep
Which, of course, is exactly why the public needs to know much more
about it, even if it requires rude tactics like crashing the spooks’