Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Wiretapping 101

HIDDEN AGENDA By Mary Ann Ll. Reyes
The Philippine Star 06/22/2005

The infamous wiretapping CDs, recordings and now even ring tones involving the controversial Garci conversations are making their way around the Philippines and even abroad. Some people think being wiretapped, especially if you are the President of the Philippines or anybody famous for that matter, is amusing until it happens to you. Most people believe that because they use GSM cellphones and the signal is digital, their communications are secure.

During the analog AMPS days, monitoring a cellphone was as easy as buying a radio scanner from Radio Shack for about $450. During that time, engineering students would have fun eavesdropping on the romantic interludes of their fellow students. In order to avoid cloning, cellphones went digital.

But is digital secure? GSM is digital, but so is CD music, VCD, DVD and even satellite. All it takes to listen to a cellular conversation is the right receiver and decoder. How does the intelligence community listen to conversations?

There are actually three ways: environment or by bugging the surroundings, transmission or by listening to the signals as they are transmitted over wires or cell sites, and central office or at the facilities of the telecom company. Bugging used to involve the placement of a small transmitter in areas frequented by the target and receiving this signal some distance away. More modern means include bouncing a laser beam off the window glass and decoding the sound from the vibrations of the glass.

This is not used so much anymore because of the considerable set-up time. Transmission monitoring of land lines is as easy as attaching alligator clips to a telephone line and listening to the conversation like a party line.

With GSM cellular, a device such as a GSM Interceptor 900 is used. This device used to cost $500,000. It can be programmed to record the conversations and SMS or text messages of designated cellphone numbers. The device operates by listening to nearby cellsites, about 250 meters in the city and up to 10 km in rural areas for the cellphone number of the targets.

Once it detects that the target is calling or is being called, it starts recording. Other techniques involve decoding the microwave signals between cellsites, but because of the increased use of fiber optics and the large number of cell sites, this is impractical. Central office monitoring is done by tapping the line at the facilities of the telephone company.

This is very easy for analog land lines, which switch all lines in a given area through a local exchange, but is quite difficult for cellular, because switching is dynamic based on the system load. A cellphone conversation in Cavite may be controlled from as far away as Manila if the local facilities are congested. So how do you avoid being monitored?

The US during World War II used Navajo Indians who spoke a language the Japanese did not know. During the Mindanao war in the 70s, radio operators spoke Kapampangan because the MNLF did not have any Kapampangan troops. But because translators are a dime a dozen nowadays, using an unknown language may no longer be practicable, unless you invent a new one.

Scramblers may also come in handy but are rather expensive since both the caller and the receiving party should be equipped with one.

By using scramblers, the conversation becomes difficult if not impossible to decipher for anybody eavesdropping or illegally recording it because the voices become muffled. Scramblers may be practical for certain government offices but not for ordinary folks.

For common folks like us, when engaged in a controversial or delicate conversation that could put you in trouble if it leaks out, try modulating or raising the pitch of your voice. That way, you can easily deny it was your voice. From the readers:

I am not in the habit of sending letters to newspapers but since you wrote in a recent column of yours about the above subject asking for views on why this has persisted I feel I have to somehow try even if my view will not be welcome to those who manage the country’s energy affairs.

A masters’ degree holder from the National College of Public Administration and Governance of the University of the Philippines who majored in Public Policy and Program Administration, I have been in the energy business since graduation from college and am presently also a professorial lecturer in Public Administration in the Graduate School of the University of the East.

The problem of power generation is that it is an activity where economies of scale is extremely critical, thus contrary to the popular belief, saving power results in higher per unit cost and thus should not be encouraged. If you will dig back to 1978 press releases of the Napocor and their financial reports, the losses incurred by the company were attributed to the very successful energy saving program that resulted in lower volumes of electricity sold which raised production costs for electricity whereas fixed costs such as debt amortization and salaries of personnel remained the same or even increased.

When the FVR administration tried to solve power shortages problems the only way it could attract investors in power generation was to guarantee that this independent power producers (IPP) will be guaranteed a minimum volume of sales. There is nothing wrong with that.

What was wrong was for the government to charge consumers Power Purchase Adjustment (PPA) which is the difference between the volume of electricity sold and what was guranteed to the IPPs and to penalize and force large power consumers to save and consume less electricity by charging them higher and higher rates as their electrical consumption increased, instead of the other way round. This resulted into higher and higher PPAs.

This is never done in other countries. There, large power conumers such as factories are rewarded with lower rates and thus consume more as they increase their production to be able to produce cheaper products that will be more competitive in the market, and as the volume of production increases they then need to employ more people whose salaries and wages also go up as a result of the increased demand for labor.

Thus we see the spectacle of companies such as Unilever, Procter and Gamble, and Filsyn moving their production facilities to Thailand and Indonesia.

Our energy officials seem to be fixated on savings and making electricity cheap for the poor who unfortunately becomes even poorer as most products become more expensive for them as a result of expensive electricity.

Forget about saving electricity. Whatever you save just increase PPA that you have to pay. – Ildefonso Maminta

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1 comment:

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