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Who's listening in?

Who's Listening In?

A CORPORATE CEO SPOKE INTIMATELY INTO her telephone. Her voice was so low that someone on the other side of the desk would not be able to understand what she was saying. No one else was in the room. She felt secure.

And then something jarred her consciousness. Could her phone be tapped? Was someone listening to the conversation, which she definitely wanted to keep private? She ended the conversation somewhat awkwardly and sat back to ponder the matter.

She had heard of phone taps and began to wonder if she should worry about telephone security. The subject hadn't come up in her conversations with the company's security director.

Her thoughts dwelt on the point for a few seconds and then moved on to other matters. She had been planning a major shift in marketing tactics and had emphasized the need for secrecy in staff meetings. Everything possible had been done to ensure confidentiality, but the though of telephone eavesdropping hovered on the edge of her consciousness for the rest of the day.

The next morning she saw Bill, the security director, in the company dining room, as she had expected. She poured a cup of coffee, walked over to him, and asked if she could join him. He half rose from his chair and answered, "Please." It was not the most graceful response, but he was caught by surprise since she had never singled him out for contact outside her office before.

Without preamble, she opened the conversation with, "I'm worried about telephone privacy. Am I right in assuming that no one else can listen in on my conversations?"

Bill mentally squirmed but maintained his composure. Eavesdropping defenses in industry were not his strong suit. Besides, he had a problem. He couldn't just say that he didn't know, and he was reluctant to tell Bonnie, the CEO, that she shouldn't be saying anything sensitive over the telephone.

Wanting to stay on safe ground initially at least, he responded, "We have no reason to believe that our telephones have been compromised."

Bonnie definitely didn't like that answer, and Bill lost some ground by not saying anything definitive. She had wanted a sure answer in the affirmative. Her demeanor cooled slightly as she asked, "Can you expand on that a little?"

"Well, we have the system checked out every six months," he explained. "And more often, if there is any indication of a problem."

"What does `checking out the system' consist of?" she asked, growing concerned.

"The usual thing," he replied. "We have a contract with a security services company that comes in and inspects all the telephones and the lines in the executive offices."

"Why haven't I seen them here?" she asked.

"They come in after hours," he responded.

"I don't remember seeing anthing cross my desk about that," Bonnie observed.

"Frankly, I didn't think that you'd be interested in the details, Bonnie."

"But what does this `check out cost' us?" she asked.

"Well, it's $6,500 per visit. They charge by the room and the number of phones."

Bonnie's eyebrows rose slightly as she said, "I see." After a short pause while she sipped her coffee, she said, "Bill, I want to talk more about this. See Ann and make an appointment for this afternoon."

She started to get up. Bill shifted uncomfortably in his seat and said hastily, "It would be better if we didn't talk in your office, Bonnie."

Bonnie dropped back into her chair and stared at him. Finally she said in a controlled voice. "Do you mean to tell me that it isn't safe for me to talk in my own office?"

Now Bill was really in a bind. If he said yes, she would demand to know why she hadn't been told that before, how such an invasion of privacy could occur, and any number of other things. When she saw he was having trouble with the answer, she said, "All right, set something up in a safe place and tell my secretary what time. If there's a conflict with my schedule, she can work it out with you. Remember, I want to have a complete discussion."

"Perhaps I should bring in technical experts to give you a briefing on the subject," Bill suggested.

"No, I want to hear your position on this eavesdropping matter, and I want it boiled down to essentials. Technical experts waste time with things most of us can't understand." With that she got up and walked briskly out of the room.

Bill sat there for a few minutes and then left, too. He was thinking hard as he went back to his office. He had retired from the federal government six years before and in his former career had observed the rule that the telephone was not secure. He and his fellow workers assumed phones were tapped and that anyone might be listening to their conversations. They weren't paranoid, just practical.

Every inch of their telephone lines could not be continuously observed to ensure they weren't tapped. And no electrical measurements were available that could tell them with certainly their lines were not tapped. Most business involved sensitive matters that required total privacy, and the government had spent a great deal of effort to secure telephones. But all precautions boiled down to the fact that no public telephone system is safe from compromise.

Now, Bonnie apparently had sensitive matters to discuss on the phone and expected him to make her conversations safe. He had made a big mistake by not telling her the rules for telephone security long ago. He would just have to make the best of the situation now, but he kicked himself for not bringing up the subject earlier.

Actually, he had not known how to broach the subject. When he emerged from government, he was amazed by industry's attitude toward eavesdropping security. Industry wasn't living in the real world in that regard. Later, he began to accept the way eavesdropping problems were addressed. During the last few years, he had simply followed the procedures everyone else in industry used, which was contracting with a group of sweepers-for-hire to check out the executive offices twice a year.

Bill's situation was more serious than sweeps could remedy, however. Bonnie had a cellular telephone that was vulnerable to eavesdropping by any professional who made her a target. She had used the cellular phone for more than a year, and he had not cautioned her on its vulnerabilities, either.

When she asked him to talk about telephone security in her office, his government experience took over and affected his judgment. He knew the office could be bugged at any time by the cleaning crew or other visitors. The semiannual sweep was only a gesture toward defense, not a defense that could be depended on. Therefore, he had blurted out that they shouldn't discuss eavesdropping defense in her office. That had let the cat out of the bag and put him in a delicate situation.

Bill got out a pad of paper and made notes as he thought of the approach he should take during their meeting. He was certain of one thing: If his logic was flawed, Bonnie would spot it. His presentation would have to hang together very well.

As he pondered the matter, it dawned on him that he had never been asked to provide security against electronic eavesdropping. He had never been told that sensitive matters were discussed by telephone or, for that matter, in the conference rooms.

He did not sit in on meetings where company operations were discussed. His boss Fred, the director of administration, did, but he had never passed on orders to maintain a defense against eavesdropping. When Bill had suggested the semiannual sweeps, Fred had shrugged and said he would approve them if they fit into the previously approved security budget. Otherwise, they had never discussed the matter.

With that point established in his mind, Bill found he could discuss the matter with Bonnie without worrying so much about covering his back. In effect, the meeting might establish a new security requirement directly from the top of the company. He knew that Fred might get his nose out of joint when he heard about the meeting, but that was something that could be dealt with later.

He finished the outline for his presentation and reserved a small conference room for half an hour after the normal close of business. Then he went upstairs and told Bonnie's secretary, Ann, that he had set the meeting up for 6:00 pm. Ann was a little surprised at the arrangement but made no comment except that she would pass the information on to Bonnie.

Bonnie arrived at the conference room promptly at 6:00 pm and sat down at the table. Bill had arrived five minutes early and checked to be sure there was chalk and an eraser for the blackboard. He had only a blank pad of paper in front of him.

He opened the discussion by saying, "I assume from your questions this morning that you have sensitive things to discuss over the telephone and want assurance that it is safe to do so."

"That's right. I haven't thought about the matter before, but we are involved in plans that could cause problems if they become public. If we don't have the element of surprise working for us in the next month, we'll lose our competitive edge in an important part of the market," she answered. "Now, where do we stand?"

"In a word, we cannot assume that our telephone lines are safe," he responded.

"Is that because you know that they are tapped now?" she asked.

"No, it's because I cannot be sure that they are not. Because I cannot be sure, the only safe position to take in this situation is to assume that they are." Bill knew what was coming next, but he waited quietly while Bonnie digested that thought.

"Okay. That makes sense, but why can't you be sure that they aren't tapped?" she asked. "Surely in this day and age there's some way to test them."

"There are tests that reveal certain types of taps. The problem is that those tests cannot detect a properly made tap. Therefore, we cannot conclude that negative findings indicate the absence of a tap. They simply mean that some types of taps are not present." Bill knew he was getting his point across because Bonnie gave no evidence of skepticism except to ask if he was sure he was up to date on the relevant technology. He assured her that he was, a fact she appeared to accept.

Suddenly she sat up a little straighter and asked, "Then what are these $6,500 sweeps for?"

That was more difficult to explain, but he tried. "If a tap is found through tests or a physical inspection of the lines, that information would be useful, whether or not there is anything sensitive to be heard by an eavesdropper."

"Do the technicians physically inspect the lines?" she asked.

"Well, strictly speaking, they look at the lines where they appear on terminals because that's where a tap is likely to be. But that's only within the building. A tap could be made at some point between the building and the telephone central or at the central itself," he added.

"I see," she said thoughtfully. "You're sure that you're right about this?"

"Definitely," he responded. "In my former career with the government, we investigated the matter thoroughly and concluded the same thing. We had to assume the phones were tapped and design our conversations accordingly."

"Well, how do you conduct business when everything you want to discuss is sensitive?" she asked. "If we had to meet in person every time we wanted to talk about something, it would slow things down to a crawl here," she added.

"In the government some people cheated. They used double-talk to try to disguise the subject matter so that it wouldn't be understood by a third party. But that was forbidden, and people knew their jobs could be in jeopardy if they were found taking shortcuts like that."

Bonnie was impressed. She understood that a great deal of effort and money had gone into solving the problem of conducting business in a safe but efficient way. If that was the government's conclusion, then it must be valid.

"What about scramblers?" she asked.

"Scramblers were the government's answer to the problem, but they are expensive, and everyone you talk to has to have one also. If you like, I'll find out what types are available for industry and what they cost," he volunteered.

"Good, do that," she answered. "But first, I want you to put together a 15-minute presentation on telephone security. I want the department heads to understand this. I am going to insist that they appreciate the problem and pass it on to their employees. I appreciate the information, and I'm a little shocked we haven't considered the matter before. By the way," she added, "Is Fred aware of this?"

"I don't know, Bonnie. The subject never came up before."

"Well, I'll tell him what happened here and keep you from getting into trouble with him. Thanks again, and I'll have Ann give you the time for the briefing sometime tomorrow." "Right," he responded.

Bonnie left, and Bill breathed a sigh of relief. The meeting had gone well, and he felt as though he was getting back into the real world - a little way at least.

The line between real defenses against eavesdropping and industry's often ineffective steps in that direction had become blurred for Bill in the past few years. He had myriad responsibilities in his job and simply hadn't stopped to consider the matter thoroughly. Now he had someone at the top who wanted security and accepted a logical approach to achieving it.

Certainly some department heads would have a cavalier attitude toward telephone security, and others below them would cheat. But with orders coming from the top, he would be listened to and encounter a minimum of open resistance to security measures. He was not a supplicant trying to enforce rules of conduct that he had decided were needed. Instead, he was an advisor to the CEO.

His presentation was at 1:00 pm the following day. Six people were present besides Bonnie and him. Two of them were unhappy because they had planned longer lunches, and Fred seemed particularly quiet.

Bonnie opened the meeting on time by announcing briskly, "You know that we have mapped out a new marketing strategy and are about one foot off the diving board in our commitment to it. If the plan goes public or gets into our competitor's hands, it will fall flat and we'll lose our shirts."

They all sat waiting expectantly. She let them wait for a full 15 seconds and then asked, "When do you think we'll find out the plan leaked?"

They were stunned by the question. Then one of them asked timidly, "Has it leaked, Bonnie?"

"I don't think we'll find out until we're about four feet off the diving board. If someone is going to do a job on us, they are going to wait until they're positive that we're fully committed." She looked around slowly at each of them. She had their undivided attention.

"That brings us to the purpose of this meeting. The day before yesterday, it occurred to me that if someone tapped our phones, the cat would be out of the bag. We all have talked about this on the telephone." She added, "Bill, tell them what you told me about the telephones yesterday."

Bill outlined the matter in simple terms as he had before to Bonnie and ended by saying he was researching scramblers and would report to Bonnie with recommendations in three days. When he finished, John, the vice president for sales, asked, "Does that include our cellular telephones too, Bill?"

"As I said, the main reason we cannot be sure that the telephones have not been tapped is that we can't visually inspect the lines over their entire two-mile length to the telephone central. Cellular phones don't use wires. They use radio waves. That means anyone with a radio receiver tuned to the right frequency can listen to your conversations. There is no way to tell if someone is doing that. Cellular phones are more vulnerable to interception than regular phones," Bill explained.

"But I've heard cellular phones change frequencies all the time and an eavesdropper can't keep a receiver tuned to the right one," John observed.

"Yes, they do change frequencies as they move from one cell area to another. However, if one sits in the parking lot here and carries on a conversation, the frequency won't change and the telephone acts as a small broadcasting station," Bill answered.

John's face reddened slightly because he had been doing exactly that with his cellular phone. He had certain social calls he wanted to make and thought they would be more private from his car than from the office.

"Of course, it's a violation of federal law for anyone to listen in on cellular telephone conversations, but it's not likely that an eavesdropper would be concerned about that," Bill said. "I should add that eavesdroppers can use receivers that automatically follow the frequency of transmission from a car phone, so moving is no protection. Besides, you may travel for tens of minutes inside one cell area and your frequency wouldn't change during that time. It simply is not prudent to discuss sensitive matters over a radio system of any kind unless a good-quality scrambler is used."

"Are there any other questions?" Bonnie asked. "Good. Now I want you to pray that we haven't been had and then brief the people in your departments on the matter and remind them periodically of our concern. Do it in such a way that they won't go out and gossip about the `security campaign' and attract attention to us, but do it," she added forcefully. "Bill and Fred, will you stay here for a minute? The rest of you can go. Thank you."

When the others had left, she addressed the two men seated in front of her. "Fred, I'm concerned that we didn't think of this matter before. We could be in serious trouble because we didn't. I understand that you do not have a background in security or intelligence work and for that reason didn't raise the subject. For the matter, neither have I. But Bill does, and I think he would have made recommendations along these lines earlier if he had been aware of the sensitivity of our planning."

Bill remained silent as Fred nodded and said, "Yes, I suppose that's true."

"I'm glad you agree. I have decided that for the time being he should sit in on our staff meetings for that purpose. He will be a nonvoting member of the group, so to speak, but will act as an advisor on information privacy. His department will still be a component of administration and will operate as before, but Bill will report directly to me on these matters. I realize the lines of responsibility and authority get a little messy with this arrangement, but I want to try it, at least during the time that this program is underway. Is that okay with you?" she asked, looking at Fred and then Bill.

"Yes, I can understand the arrangement. I'm sorry I didn't think of it myself, Bonnie," Fred responded.

"I understand," was Bill's only response. Inwardly, his spirits were soaring, but not because he was highly ambitious. His government pension was adequate to support him, and he had already proven himself to himself. He knew what he could and could not do and had long ago stopped comparing himself to others to get a feeling of superiority. But he had been unhappy in his current job.

The logic behind some procedures - and the way they were done - was troubling. Now he could try to sort them out and suggest changes without having to budge the cumbersome corporate bureaucracy. Besides, he had been exposed to Bonnie's clear and incisive approach to problem solving, and he looked forward to working with her. About the Author ... Glenn H. Whidden, CPP, is an inventor, author, lecturer, and veteran of 28 years of service with the CIA. He has operated Technical Services Agency Inc. of Fort Washington, MD, since 1976. He is a member of ASIS and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
COPYRIGHT 1990 American Society for Industrial Security
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Title Annotation:a story about telephone security
Author:Whidden, Glenn H.
Publication:Security Management
Date:Oct 1, 1990
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