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The cloak-&-dagger communicator.

I will always remember my Secret Sam. It was the neatest toy I ever had. From the outside, it looked like a black plastic briefcase -- a lot like the one I carry today. But on the inside was some of the most sophisticated technology available to a nine-year-old boy.

It had a camera that could take pictures through a hole in the side of the case. It also housed a gun that could shoot both short- and long-range bullets out of another secret opening. And, as an extra feature, a periscope allowed the user to see around comers and over fences.

Transformed into a miniature Man From U.N.C.L.E., I used my Secret 5am to save the world from evil. Who among us hasn't been influenced by popular culture's romanticized depictions of high- tech espionage? We love the gadgets, the intrigue, the goodguys-vs.-bad-guys battles where James Bond always foils his enemies and saves the world from destruction.

Well, a look at the real world of spy vs. spy reveals a bit of glamour and a lot of fancy hardware. It also raises some interesting ethical and legal issues spawned by the combination of new technology and the basic human urge to stick one's nose into other people's business.

Powerful tools

In the old days, spies used techniques such as searching dumpsters, disguising themselves as repair people, or good oldfashioned bribery and extortion. Those methods are still being used effectively, but today's clandestine information gatherers have never had such a powerful array of new tools at their disposal.

You don't even have to break into an office to plant a bug any more. A well-funded spy can set up a stakeout in a building across the street from a surveillance target and use a machine that points a laser beam at the subject's window. Voices in the room cause subtle vibrations in the window pane. Those vibrations are picked up by the laser beam's reflection, which is fed back into a tape recorder. Another high-tech bugging device, the "infinity tap," turns the microphone of any telephone handset into a listening device. It can be activated from another phone anywhere in the world. Better still, if you are a third-world government, you can simply monitor every telephone conversation and facsimile transmission coming into your country.

The spying business isn't the private domain of electronics wizards or secret service agents. At the low end of the market, all kinds of eavesdropping equipment is available to interested consumers, from binoculars with a microphone wand that can pick up conversations from 200 feet away to an aerosol spray that makes envelopes translucent for a few moments, then disappears.

Reasons for concern

Professional communicators have lots of reasons to be concerned with the business of espionage. For one thing, we are often entrusted with information that is not yet ready for public disclosure, so we are potential targets of corporate spies. We are also the people who have to talk to the press if our own company is caught snooping illegally. And public relations professionals are sometimes accused of authorizing hightech intelligence operations themselves -- and then denying responsibility when their work is discovered.

"We've seen some very big takeover battles in Britain where directors of companies asked their PR agents to find information about a takeover target," says Nicolas Vafiadis, one of the world's leading experts on counterespionage. "The PR agents then contracted someone else to do the job, who in turn contracted it to someone else, and it got more 'deniable'as you got down the chain. When the spying activities were uncovered, the directors and PR people could say, 'We didn't ask for this to be done!'"

Vafiadis is technical director of communications at Communications Audit (U.K.) Ltd., a London-based consulting firm that helps corporations and governments keep their information secure. If anyone knows what's happening in the international cloakand-dagger business, he's the one. Vafiadis has trained foreign governments and large companies in the ways of electronic security. He says prime users of expensive state-of-the-art espionage techniques range from companies involved in takeover battles to third- world governments trying to protect themselves from being exploited by powerful multinationals.

Vafiadis predicts espionage activities in Europe are about to see a significant increase as a result of the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. "There's a great worry today that all the Eastern Bloc security people who are now out of a job are wandering around all over the place looking for things to do." He adds that the relaxation of border controls resulting from the emergence of a single European market will allow free movement of goods, services and people, and "consequently there will be no control over electronic surveillance devices."

He also confidently predicts that "electronic risks will be the security battlefield of the '90s," and that terrorist organizations are beginning to get interested in the prospect of using new generations of "mutating" computer viruses "that bypass antidote programs and hardware to attack multinational networks and mainframe computer systems."

Amazing stuff. But we will let James Bond worry about it. Let's now look at the kind of spying that's closer to home.

Who's bugging whom

"I found two bugs last night in a hospital administrator's office," says Kevin Murray, director of Murray Associates in Clinton, N.J., one of North America's largest counterintelligence consulting firms. Murray has been in the business for 20 years, and says when he searches for listening devices, "It seems to be about five percent of the time you come up with something in your hand."

His clipped New Jersey accent and confident, understated manner conjure images of trench coats, cigarettes and dimly lit offices in the middle of the night. "1 help companies keep their secrets a secret," he says when asked to describe his business.

Why do people spy on other people? "Two categories," says Murray. "If information has a dollar value, they will try to steal it. The other is political value. The information will give you some sort of power." He says it happens at all levels, "from Fortune 50 companies to mom and pop battles over who gets the family business."

Murray says most information theft is not electronic, and is the result of poor general security -- not locking things up or discussing confidential business in public places. "Problem is, though, when it's electronic, it's very devastating because the information is at its freshest. The fresher it is, the more valuable to someone else." Some like it freshet than others= "For my clients on Wall Street, information is dead at the end of the business day."

Technology is having an effect on the spying business, but Murray says it's not sophisticated bugs and phone taps and laser beams we should be worried about: "Available technology is being turned into eavesdropping equipment. Fancy phone systems, if you press the right buttons, can activate hands-free phones in other offices without anyone knowing. Scanners can detect cordless telephones, cellular phones and baby monitors. There's a lot of sci-fi gadgerry available, but in practical terms, people don't realize that the systems we use every day can be used against us."

Technology vs. The People

It seems as if every week we learn of a new way our privacy can be invaded. Cellular phones may be a handy convenience, but there are about one million people in the U.S. alone who own radio scanners that can pick up cellular conversations. Even if a scanner is set up so it will not pick up cellular frequencies, a quick snip of a wire inside frees up the right channels. Certain older television sets will even pick up cellular phone calls on their UHF tuners.

And that's only what's available to the general public. Professional spies have found ways to track the physical location of cellular users, and to create "ghost" phones that will pick up another phone's calls by imitating the way it interacts with the cellular network. Unless you have digital scrambling and descrambling equipment on each end of the call, the only reliable insurance against cellular spying is to not talk about private matters while on a cellular phone.

Many phone companies now offer a service that allows subscribers to identify the phone number of who is calling in. Another convenience. But how do you know when you call an 800 or 900 number that your own phone number isn't being recorded for use in a future telemarketing campaign?

E-mail users file lawsuits

Many companies have some form of electronic mail system where employees can easily send messages and files to each other or to groups, as well as the ability to post information on electronic "forums" and "bulletin boards." Do you know whether or not your mail is being monitored? And if your employer reads your mail, is it spying or just a management prerogative? At least two court cases are now in progress in the U.S. that will help resolve this issue.

Alana Shoars, a former E-mail administrator at Epson America Inc. of Torrance, Calif., has filed a class action suit against Epson on behalf of employees that alleges management printed and read the private electronic mail messages of 700 employees. In a similar suit, two former employees of Nissan Motor Co. Inc. of Carson, Calif. are bringing an action against Nissan that claims management illegally read their workers' private mail.

Los Angeles labour lawyer Noel Shipman is representing the plaintiffs in both cases, and says there is nothing legally wrong with companies reading internal mail, but "it's the sneaking around that gets you into trouble." If a company intends to monitor electronic mail, Shipman says, it should formally communicate this to all employees involved.

"When you become an employee, you give up some rights, but you don't give up your right to privacy unless you know you're giving it up. Nobody elected your employer God just because you work for them, but if you are told that E-mail will be monitored, they can do it."

The problem is, says Shipman, once a company says it might read electronic mail, use of the system goes down dramatically.

Defending electronic freedoms

Gerard Van der Leun, director of communications for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), also thinks monitoring of electronic mail systems is a bad idea. "If you don't guarantee privacy, no one will use the E-mail system or people will use it for the most mundane purposes," says Van der Leun. "When you encourage open discussion on these systems, you can enable people at the top to get information through from the bottom. If you have a clear commitment to privacy, you can cut through hierarchical lines."

Van der Leun represents a new breed of electronic freedom fighter. The EFF was formed in 1990 by Lotus founder Mitch Kapor, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and other computer industry leaders. It exists to defend the interests of the public as it enters the new world being formed by the "vast web of digital, electronic media which connects us."

The EFF mission statement goes on to say the foundation has been established "to civilize the electronic frontier" and to do this "in keeping with our society's highest traditions of the free and open flow of information and communication." The EFF gives legal assistance to "hackers" who get in trouble with governments or large corporations, speaks to groups on issues of civil liberties and computer networking, and lobbies government to create laws relating to technology that protect individual users.

The existence of the EFF shouldn't stop us from worrying about computerrelated snoopery. Most computers are extremely vulnerable to espionage attacks, especially if they are in any way connected to an outside phone line. Software products are now on the market that allow callers from remote locations to use modems to gain completely transparent access to a network of personal computers. Entering the system in this way, the electronic spy could browse through everyone's files and go completely undetected.

Precautions against computer spying can be taken, such as establishing passwords and changing them regularly. Simple security steps can go a long way to protecting information, but nowadays the only computer completely safe from data thieves is in a "glass room," cut off from all other computers and phone lines. Even then, some intelligence experts claim that computers give off small radio signals that can be intercepted and decoded, and that "data pulses" from standard computer monitors can be detected from distances of 50 metres or more.

Keeping the spies out in the cold

Lorne Earle, director of security at Petro-Canada of Calgary, Alta. and an IABC Gold Quill winner, says any system that is connected to a computer has the potential for close surveillance, and recommends that all sensitive data should be kept only on a floppy disk, and locked up when not in use.

Despite the need for corporations to take precautions against spies, he says, "[Competing companies] don't need to do a whole bunch of clandestine investigation. You can put together a hell of a dossier just by using open sources of information. These sources include criminal records, newspapers and magazines, credit checks, commercial database searches and corporate registries.

Earle, who worked as a counterespionage agent for the Canadian government before getting into corporate security, says no amount of published information is as useful as flesh-an&blood sources. "Electronic surveillance is very time-consuming and expensive," says Earle. "It's a poor way of addressing the issue. Someone close to the action will tell you what's going on. Just buy them a few drinks."

Earle says the technology "is out there," and that the state of the art is driven to new heights by countries who develop it for international use.

For anyone who may be considering the prospect of conducting their own espionage campaign, Earle has some sobering advice: "There are always those who violate the law. But, in practice, any company that would monitor electronic communications is very stupid. If they get caught, everyone would just turn on them and they would have their ass sued off."

Times certainly have changed since the days when we all looked forward to hearing the familiar melodramatic theme music of "Mission: Impossible"as a lit fuse raced across our TV screens. Today there is no good fight to fight, no cold war to make it easy to discern the good guys from the bad. Modern espionage seems more dirty than glamorous. One can imagine a '90s version of Mr. Phelps getting his assignment ("should you decide to accept it..."). But, before the tape from HQ has had a chance to self-destruct, he sees that the risk of litigation is too great and walks away, muttering something about the good old days.

Ron Shewchuk is editor, communication projects, Petro-Canada, Calgary, Alta.


Plenty of people are finding excuses to spy on each other these days. Here is a brief compendium of who has been doing what to whom -- or at least those whose activities have been made public. As counterespionage expert Kevin Murray puts it, "Only failed espionage gets discovered. Frequency of publicity is on a par with commercial airline flights: only failed missions make the news."

__ This boss really bugged his employees. In London, Robert Maxwell's corpse had barely splashed into the sea when stories of his unscrupulous activities were splashing all over the front pages of Fleet Street. One of the most startling revelations was that Maxwell had secret electronic eavesdropping devices installed in the offices of his senior executives, financial advisers, accountants and journalists. The media magnate apparently worried about people ripping him off, leaking corporate information to competitors, and sending juicy stories to Private Eye, a British satirical magazine.

__ Not every visitor to America is a tourist. In recent years, Gerber, Kellogg, Upjohn and many other prominent companies have cancelled their plant tours, citing concerns about industrial espionage and corporate security. And a family in Costa Mesa, Calif., is suing Japanese car manufacturing giant Nissan for invasion of privacy. The family took in a young Japanese boarder who befriended them, but turned out to be an "operative" on assignment from Nissan headquarters in Japan to "unearth" the fifestyle of an American town to help design future car models tailored to U.S. customers.

__ The camera may never blink, but it can peep. In Granite City, I11., the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Local 7-776 is suing Amoco Oil Co. for U.S. $10 million for invasion of privacy for installing a video camera in a women's changing room at a company facility. Amoco installed the camera in an attempt to catch an unauthorized male intruder, and stated publicly that it is "extremely sorry these actions were taken."

__ A computer virus helped win the Gulf War. According to unnamed "senior U.S. officials," U.S. intelligence agents managed to sneak a computer virus into Iraq several weeks before the Persian Gulf War. The virus was contained in a printer that was smuggled to Baghdad through Aman, Jordan. When hooked up to an Iraqi computer, the virus was designed to sabotage Iraq's air defense system.

__ There's a fine line between hacking and spying. College student and famous computer "hacker" Craig Neidorf was charged with interstate transport of stolen property after he published an internal memo of BellSouth on his electronic magazine, Phrack. Neidorf faced up to 60 years in prison and $122,000 in fines for stealing and illegally distributing proprietary information. Charges were dropped when it was found that the contents of the memo were already available to the public.

__ The spy business is booming in the U.S. In a recent survey of the American Society for Industrial Security published in Security Management magazine, 37 percent of the 165 companies that responded said they had experienced theft of proprietary information.
COPYRIGHT 1992 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:corporate espionage; includes related article
Author:Shewchuk, Ron
Publication:Communication World
Date:Mar 1, 1992
Previous Article:Putting the employee newsletter on-line.
Next Article:Rewiring corporate communication.

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