Big Mother is Listening by Jack King


"We don't do illegal wiretaps," Alan McDonald, supervising special agent for the FBI's Information Resources Divison, told participants at a debate sponsored by Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility in 1993. He then added cryptically, "I don't know about your state and local authorities."

"I suppose they gave them up about the same time they gave up black bag jobs," a reporter muttered to Danny Weitzner, then a guru with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Weitzner snorted cynically.

Title III of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 (Title 18, Sections 2510-2521 of the United States Code and other sections) makes it a federal crime to intercept oral, wire, or electronic communications without an Electronic Surveillance Order (ESO) from a federal or state judge.

Each and every federal agent takes an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution and the laws of the United States. Yet according to figures collected by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, overone million innocent conversations were intercepted by law enforcement each year for the past 10 years except last year, when an estimated two million innocent conversations were caught on tape.

Not only is this a massive invasion of your personal privacy, it's expensive. Taping and listening to people when they call mom, order pizza, or have phone sex is hardly an efficient expenditure of law enforcement rerources. It's costing us a bundle.

"Most wiretaps are inefficient and costly," says David Banisar, a lawyer and policy analyst with the Electronic Privacy Information Center . According to the Administrative Office of the Courts' annual Wiretap Report, 1,058 requests, not including an apparent 150 Drug Enforcement Administration requests, were mysteriously never filed with the A.O. The prosecutors estimate this costs the taxpayers $56,454 per tap—almost $60 million last year—and that's leaving out a lot of their costs. And that doesn't include the foreign intelligence taps."

Lurk and Listen in. The Feds are our friends. Of course they don't do illegal taps. Why should they? There are plenty of other folks around doing it, and willing to share their intelligence with them. For one thing, criminals, believe it or not, are very fond of tapping and taping each other—it's like insurance. When the shit hits the fan, it gets on everybody, and one way to stay squeaky clean with the Feds is to make them a deal they can't refuse. Another source of illegal wiretap evidence comes from state and local law enforcement officials. McDonald won't vouch for them, but some federal agents and federal prosecutors are not above receiving illegal wiretap evidence when it's handed to them on a silver platter. Sort of a law enforcement version of "don't ask, don't tell."

And a very important law enforcement source of illegal eavesdropping evidence is the ever-vigilant Good Citizen with a scanner. The bugging business is booming.

An Idiot Can Do It
Every so often, so-called "superhacker" Kevin Mitnick gets busted again, or somebody hacks the U.S. Department of Just-us Web page and people get hysterical about computer security. I don't just mean concerned—I mean the newspapers, the magazines, the six o'clock newsfolk, Andy, Barney, and Aunt Bea—everybody just goes crazy out of their gourds over computer security.

Then they pour a glass wine, get into bed, snuggle up to their pillow, and talk dirty to each other over cordless telephones across the country.

Right. With most cordless telephones on the market, any idiot can intercept the conversation. Oh, that was recently made illegal, but word apparently hasn't gotten around to my Sanyo cordless handset, which intercepts the conversations of this other guy in my apartment building like he was in the same room. I don't use that phone for anything. Not that I'm into phone sex so much, but I'm on a first-name basis with LL Bean, and I don't want anybody else leaving home with my American Express numbers.

And many scanners, the favorite toy of people who not only don't have a life but don't even have an ISP, can be modified to pick up both sides of a cordless telephone conversation pretty well, even though the handset and the base station operate on different channels. Heck, should I point out that for units manufactured before October 1994 (some of which are presumably still on the shelves), this was actually a selling point?

Next time you watch Jerry Seinfeld answer his cordless phone, imagine you live next door to him and you really can hear both sides of his conversation.