Saturday, October 04, 2003

The Daily Star's 'snooping in on our privacy' hoax

On the 4th of September the Daily Star in Dhaka, made a major front page story Move on to tap phone calls, bust e-mails of Intelligence agencies in Bangladesh lobbying the Government for a new law authorizing monitoring of electronic information - all the way from emails to eavesdropping on phone conversations. Other than among handful of privacy conscious citizens of this country, the story failed to create an intended stir, and deafening also was the silence from the Government.

Like every other sensational story, the information was from 'reliable sources' within intelligence agencies and 'spokesmen' from ministries that for long has a reputation for being thoroughly 'unreliable' and matters seemed to pass - not until somebody convinced the local BBC correspondent to cover the episode.

The headline was Anger at Bangladeshi snooping plans, and the anger appears to have been no more than that of the Daily Star, it had sadly nothing new to offer, neither could it name one official of the Home Ministry in the government nor the cabinet. So much for BBC's credibility.

Attempts at an upward spiral of gaining 'international credibility' on the hoax nonetheless continued unabated, and saw similar stories being carried by other 'foreign' news agency - but once again, other than spiced up views of some notorious English language journalists with known connections to foreign intelligence to well meaning telecommunication experts in the field offering for public consumption a succession of expressed disgust to the government plans, to legal opinion on the Telecommunication Act of 2001 - the stories by and large fell flat. Privacy being a sensitive matter and one that everybody is entitled to, the irony is, as of now we do not know exactly what our stand as citizens ought to be.

The Daily Star's fuss that intelligence service are seeking a law, making eavesdropping legal - at least on the surface, the admissibility of such collated information in a court for criminal prosecution, would interalia indicate that Bangladesh is a Police state, and democracy as such is non existent was very worrying. It's failure however to come forward with serious investigative and verifiable evidence of the Government move, and other than a hackneyed 'big brother is watching you' undertone, evidently failed in its professed objective, i.e. creating an unnecessary public cyber panic, at a time when IT as such is at its infancy in Bangladesh and communications technologies by and large not extending beyond hobbyist curiosity.

Intrusive intelligence gathering is a norm in any security setup of a state, and exactly how this is carried out remains necessarily classified. The Daily Star story only exposed its sheer limitation and inadequacy in fathoming the delicate balance between freedom of information, in direct contrast to the freedom of misinformation or disinformation, and a 'freedom' that is often abused with the Daily Star being a champion abuser.

The intelligence services in Bangladesh do not need a law to monitor emails or phone calls - that would be a foolish thing to do, because essentially it is no rocket science, indeed no technology intended for generic consumption is as such.

For instance, illegal or otherwise teenagers in Bangladesh cyber cafes have access to technologies that allow for interception of emails on most addresses. In fact one of our brightest living in the US developed and markets a legal customized program that allows parents to keep tabs on their children's email while they are at work!

While ISP's go hoarse threatening the Government with strikes to implement Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIPs), our children talk to their friends and cousins in the US every night over Yahoo voice chat. Even if the ISP's have their way with the Government, the money they will make is out of the call centers that hopefully will come in its wake - NOT in domestic usage. Net2Phone is by the way going out of fashion as user friendly voice chat options are so freely available. One enterprising teenager in Dhaka even hosts LIVE rock bands performance to an Internet audience via Paltalk - meaning the days of satellite TV is perhaps numbered?

As for land phones - till such time we do not have privatized land phone access, the bare truth: BTTB is a Government key point installation and no amount of wishful thinking on our part can keep away intelligence agencies from snooping. It has always been the case regardless of who is in power, and it is an open secret that anywhere between 500 to1000 phones are tapped every day in Bangladesh.

On a 'private' level snooping is cheap if not totally free. A few hundred Takas paid to a friendly local telephone linesman can provide just about anybody willing to seek misadventures, to have any call made or received on a land phone to be redirected to your phone for monitoring.

The Daily Star when it speaks of 'intelligence' speaks of it only in terms of spying or espionage in relation to the Government per se, general political or national security destabilization efforts etc. Little known or understood is Business intelligence and it is perfectly possible within the existent telecommunications infrastructure for a business competitor of Daily Star for instance, to have access to phone call made by its managers to say advertisers - i.e. via courtesy of the local linesman!

When it is once too often that we end up with what is termed 'ghost bill' - i.e. you were out of town for a month, your telephone set properly code locked, and sealed inside your bedroom, yet on your return find a bill of Taka 100,000 hanging like a Damocles swords over you - well how the hell did your line get pilfered?

Answer: Some lineman - redirected your line to somebody in another end of town - and who made all these calls to the US or wherever, on your account!

A lot of people tend to think that cell phones are by far a lot safer, but other than the hazards of low level radiation that each cell user is exposed to - it is actually a lot easier for intelligence services or even private individuals to monitor calls. All one needs is a frequency scanner, the low end ones cost less that $ 200 and one can not only check if the girlfriend is cheating by scanning on her cell frequency, one can have unrestricted access to ALL police and private frequencies including the movements of V1 (The President) or V2 (The Prime Minister), on the Army frequencies.

As is that is not enough - it is also possible to monitor frequencies of foreign commercial airliners at 30,000 feet while they are making a bee line to land at ZIA Airport from this hand held device no larger than your average cell phone. Top end frequency scanners have the capacity to monitor a mind boggling 3 million frequencies - and cost just over $ 1000.

Consequently a Government that finds itself vulnerable to only emails and cell phone users might as well take a hard look into its own telecommunication backbone to see how easy it is for anybody to breach the proverbial 'security'. No leader or VIP as such is safe, and suave terrorist groups like the Al-Qaeda certainly will exploit such loopholes, in the event things go drastically wrong for Bangladesh in the 'war on terror'.

Meanwhile the failure of the Daily Star to go beyond what their 'source' or Ministry 'spokesmen' told them leaves us with three intelligence indicators to seriously ponder.

  1. The Daily Star report was a ruse by a foreign counter-intelligence agency to pre-empt the imminent unearthing of an electronic espionage ring already abusing rights of the citizens of Bangladesh.
  2. It is likely that Bangladesh intelligence was on the verge of cracking down on, and apprehending foreign C2 (communication and computer intelligence) operatives in Dhaka who were already deployed in the various ISP's and domain providers, having free and unrestricted access to emails and other sensitive files of Bangladesh Government officials.
  3. The Daily Star report and false alarms by 'foreign' news service, was a decoy allowing these operatives time enough to make a convenient get away.

Some people watch things happen, some people make things happen, some people do not make things happen and a fourth category, and the most dangerous are those - that wonder how things happen after failing to make thing happen!

The level of intelligence that Daily Stars displays is of the fourth category.

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