Overseas Communications

Many foreign telecommunications companies are owned or controlled by the government. Even those not government-owned or controlled are regulated by the government and will normally cooperate when their government requests assistance in monitoring specific lines.

Under these circumstances, it is easy to intercept and monitor telephone, fax, e-mail, computer, and any other form of electronic communications. A typical communications monitoring scenario might be as follows:

  • A foreign intelligence service rents an office near the targeted office or home or in another location selected to provide easy access to telecommunications facilities or transmissions from the target.
  • An electronic listening post is set up in the office and manned around the clock. The listening post eavesdrops on telephone, fax, telex, and computer communications.
  • Computers screen all communications and pick out those that are potentially valuable by identifying key words such as the name of a company, person, technology, product, project, or anything else that may identify a topic of interest to the monitoring organization or its customers.
  • Interesting communications are recorded and screened manually for the preparation of written reports. In many countries, a principal goal is to support national businesses by providing them with information on such things as their foreign competitors’ technology, marketing plans, prices, bids, and negotiating strategies.

bullet  Government programs to intercept foreign telecommunications are now standard practice in many countries. Global economic competition, the great increase in global telecommunications, and the development of computer search engines to screen massive amounts of electronic material make it cost-effective for an increasing number of countries to develop extensive intercept programs.

The cost and technology for developing a significant intercept capability is now well within the capability of many corporations, criminal syndicates, or terrorist groups in addition to foreign governments. The equipment for this can be obtained easily by almost anyone.

Security Countermeasures

You must assume that all overseas telecommunications that would be valuable to another government, company, or group will be intercepted, recorded, organized into reports, and reviewed by the persons for whom that information has value. Although that will not be true in every case, the likelihood is sufficiently great that you cannot afford to assume otherwise if compromise of the information would be a significant loss. In most cases, it is virtually impossible to detect when telecommunications are being intercepted and monitored.

This leaves three alternatives:

  • Encrypt all telecommunications that you cannot afford to have compromised. However, some countries do not allow encryption of telecommunications traffic within their borders.
  • Communicate by courier.
  • Accept the loss of confidentiality and plan accordingly.

Access to telephones, fax machines and computers should be controlled to reduce the possibility of tampering. Telephones can be adjusted so that they act as transmitters even after they are hung up. Conversations near a phone may be transmitted to the foreign country’s phone system switching facility and can be monitored from anywhere between the phone and that facility. Computers and fax machines can be tampered with to facilitate monitoring that bypasses the encryption system.

Security procedures should be followed carefully when operating any computer linked to an outside network or telephone system.

Related Topics: In the Line of Fire: American Travelers Abroad. For more technical information on various types of technical operations, see Intercepting Your Communications, Computer Vulnerabilities and Bugs and Mikes in the Computer and Other Technical Vulnerabilities area.




The Chroma Group, Ltd.