Accessibility links

World: Following Terrorists' Mobile Trails

  • Roman Kupchinsky

1 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Two recent incidents in Italy demonstrate how the monitoring of mobile telephones helped police locate suspects. But the flip side of the coin emerged recently in Ukraine, showing the apparent ease with which mobile-phone conversations can be recorded and used to discredit an opponent -- and how difficult it is for police to locate individuals who might be listening in on a conversation illegally.

Locating unauthorized eavesdroppers of mobile-phone conversations could prove difficult. Without appropriate international measures to limit the sales of technologies like the so-called IMSI catchers that imitate legitimate cell-phone networks, organized criminal gangs and private security services can continue to buy them at will.

What then is there to prevent a terrorist group from doing the same? A well-funded terrorist group could conceivably buy or steal the technology needed to eavesdrop on police or security employees' mobile-phone conversations. That could empower such groups in a number of ways, including by helping them avoid police traps, roadblocks, raids, or provide advance warning of the comings and going of important dignitaries, for instance.

Lessons Of Italy...

As British police were looking for the men suspected in the failed bombing attempts on London's public-transit system on 21 July, they contacted their Italian counterparts and requested that they track down several leads, including a number of calls placed by suspect Isaac Hamdi, also known as Hussain Osman, from his mobile phone to Italy. The Italian police began intercepting his calls; within 48 hours, they had located and arrested him in an apartment in a working-class suburb of Rome after searching some 20 locations that Hussain had called from his mobile phone while in Italy.

The same day that police announced Hamdi's arrest, media reports stated that Italian police used cell-phone surveillance in their high-profile investigation into an alleged plot to kidnap Abu Omar, a radical Muslim cleric, by purported CIA agents. Italian prosecutors presented evidence that the suspects had used at least 40 Italian mobile telephones, "some in their own names," CNN reported on 30 July, to make "casual calls."

The suspects, according to prosecutor Armando Spataro, were tracked by through their mobile phones, which showed them to be present on the route that Abu Omar normally took from his home to a Milan mosque more than "100 times."

...And Of Miami

Mobile-phone technology allows for the location of users, but this technology took many years to perfect. One method employs triangulation, measuring how far a caller is from the cell tower. Plans also call in the near future for expanding the use of the Global Positioning System (GPS) to provide the exact location of a caller. And finally, satellites can be used to pinpoint a caller if his or her mobile phone is equipped with a special chip.

The "San Francisco Chronicle" of 23 October 2000 described how a miniature GPS receiver can be put to use in a phone handset: "GPS works by measuring how long it takes a radio signal to travel from satellites to the receiver. Traditional GPS takes a lot of battery power and does not work well indoors. Mobile service providers overcome these problems by sending the handset 'hints' from a central location center via the network. For instance, the service provider can point out the nearest satellites, so the GPS receiver doesn't have to spend so much time and energy looking for them."

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has ordered that future mobile telephones be equipped with GPS chips that would reveal the carrier's location. Backers pressed for the change, at least in part, as a result of calls to the emergency E-911 number that could not be tracked by triangulation, which slowed emergency units' response times.
In addition to law-enforcement and security organizations, there is evidence to suggest that Russian and Ukrainian criminal and commercial organizations are monitoring communications -- and are doing so with equipment that is sometimes more advanced than that of state agencies.


The GPS tracking system is the basis of a police project used by authorities in Miami, Florida, to locate victims and criminals alike. Nearly 60 percent of calls to the 911 emergency number in Miami come from cell phones, NBC News reported on 14 July. Callers previously "had to provide their locations, as best they could, under conditions of duress; but police recently installed a new system, called Computer-Aided Dispatch, which can track callers even if they are on the move," NBC News reported.

"If somebody gets dumped into the trunk of a car, and are actually calling us on a cell phone, they're in a trunk, being driven around, they're not sure where -- we will now, with this system, follow that car," NBC News quoted a police official as saying on 14 July.

In the past five years, locating suspects through their mobile phones and the tapping of cell-phone conversations seems to have become a major weapon in the arsenals of the world's law-enforcement and intelligence organizations, as well as private security services. From the United Kingdom to Italy to Ukraine, the mobile telephone has become a valuable tool for police and antiterrorist investigators; on the other hand, it has also become a weapon for blackmailers bent on destroying reputations or for criminals monitoring calls made by their targets and government officials.

Technically, It's Simple

From a technical point of view, tapping a mobile phone is not a difficult task. The easiest method is to have the phone company itself allow security forces to listen in on conversations and provide records of every number dialed (included unanswered calls) from a particular phone, as well as where the caller was located.

In cases where security considerations might arguably necessitate that the provider of mobile-phone services remain unaware that secret services are listening in on customers' conversations, there are alternative methods of listening in.

Most cell-phone-tapping equipment for present-day global-system-for-mobile (GSM) systems uses a special device known as an "IMSI catcher," which imitates legitimate base stations in the area as far as the user's mobile phone is concerned. IMSI-catching equipment can be purchased commercially, and sales are reportedly brisk. (An Israeli-based company makes what is arguably the most advanced unit, which sells for about $5 million.)

More Than Just The State

In addition to law-enforcement and security organizations, there is evidence to suggest that Russian and Ukrainian criminal and commercial organizations are monitoring communications -- and are doing so with equipment that is sometimes more advanced than that of state agencies. They are reputedly involved in the widespread tapping of mobile telephones and pagers, and there is a brisk business in intercepting commercial reports and selling them to competitors.

In early June, a number of Ukrainian websites published the transcript of a revealing mobile-phone conversation between Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Svyatoslav Piskun and a well-known businessman, Viktor Pinchuk. The revelation led Ihor Smeshko, a former head of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), to complain that the state should play a more active role in preventing such phone interceptions by private citizens. Smeshko assumed that the intercept was carried out by non-state listeners; that remains an unconfirmed assumption, but the equipment to listen in on such private conversations is readily available.

In an interview with the newspaper "Zerkalo tyzhnya" on 18 June, SBU head Oleksandr Turchynov replied to a question about the widespread use in Ukraine of mobile-phone monitoring equipment that allows private individuals to listen in on calls among government officials.

"The problem you mention is not a new one," Turchinov replied, according to "Zherkalo tyzhnya." "Its difficulty lies in that the apparatus used to monitor calls is passive; it does not emit a signal, it acts similar to an antenna and it is almost impossible to locate.... This equipment is commercially available and does not require a license. Visually it resembles a notebook computer; but once it is connected to the proper equipment it begins to gather information from mobile communications. This is a colossal problem, and we are trying to warn customs inspectors about it."
XS
SM
MD
LG