By Paul Kirk
Four high-profile bugging scandals recently made news. Now a professional debugger says telephone monitoring is on the increase.
With some relief I recently learned my telephone lines were free of bugs and eavesdroppers. The check did not take long. A private detective offered to demonstrate his equipment and within about 30 minutes established that nobody was listening in to my mostly very boring conversations.
These days buggers don't hide microphones inside telephones. They can be hidden almost anywhere along the telephone line. Serious buggers don't need to gain access to your home to tap your telephone.
A top Durban private investigator said he would have been amazed if a bug had been found on my line.
"People tend to think they are more important than they really are. Never forget that tapping a person's phone properly costs a small fortune.
"For a tap to be worth anything it must be monitored 24 hours a day. That usually means three people working eight-hour shifts. If something explosive, something important, is said over the telephone then someone may need to be alerted straight away," he said.
Not that cost puts a bugger off. Another private investigator said most buggers simply left tape recorders running on telephone lines. He said modern bugs are voice activated, alerting the bugger as soon as a conversation begins.
Four high-profile bugging scandals have recently hit the press:
- Umgeni Water boss Cromet Molepo was implicated in illegally tapping the telephones of trade unionists.
censored, the owner of the shop in Durban, was arrested and charged with allegedly bugging a telephone. censored, court records show, has a previous conviction for telephone bugging.
- Governor of the South African Reserve Bank Tito Mboweni admitted that the National Intelligence Agency had discovered bugs inside its headquarters. The agency was called in after an important bank directive was leaked to a London financial institution.
- Last week the Human Rights Commission summonsed Northern Cape Premier Manne Dipico to answer allegations that he invaded an employee's privacy by monitoring telephone calls.
Telephone bugging is increasing, says Raymond van Staden, a trained electro-mechanic with 20 years' experience.
Owing to massive retrenchments in the public service many experienced police and intelligence operatives have entered the private sector. Adding to their number are scores of Telkom technicians, now retired, who offer their (often illegal) services on the open market.
The once feared telephone-tapping resources of the apartheid security apparatus are also up for sale to the highest bidder.
Van Staden said he would not bug a telephone illegally. He makes his bread and butter by debugging offices.
"In almost any newspaper you see adverts for telephone bugging services. Bugging is a crime. What view would the state take if a housebreaker were to advertise his services in the press?" he asked.
Debugging is capital intensive, the tools cost a lot of money. Van Staden, in contrast to the Durban private investigator, says that bugging, on the other hand, can cost very little. A few thousand rands and a bugger is equipped and ready to go. Competition among buggers is, as a result, cut-throat.
The basic tool kit used by a debugger costs about R500 000. Van Staden has two sets of these tools.
Van Staden made few friends when he labelled the bugging of the Democratic Alliance's offices in Cape Town a "hoax".
He believes the discovery of a "bug" in the party's offices in 1999 was nothing but a publicity stunt for the person the party hired to do the sweep.
The DA claimed to have employed a private investigator who discovered a laser beam aimed at a window. This, the DA claimed, was used to monitor conversations in their office.
Van Staden pooh-poohs the claim.
"Such equipment does exist. But it is only effective in clinical conditions. Birds singing, cars passing by, and background music make this equipment fail."
The devices used to bug telephones and boardrooms are almost limitless. Telephones can be modified to act as microphones, allowing a listener to hear conversations 6m or more away.
Tiny transmitters can be wired on to telephone lines. Tiny bugs can also be hidden in wall plugs, phones, televisions and a host of other devices.
"Probe" microphones can be inserted into holes drilled in walls, while "contact" microphones act like enormously powerful stethoscopes, allowing the bugger to hear conversations through walls and thick doors.
Bugs can even be wired into the mains wiring of a room to transmit signals down electricity lines.
According to the head of the South African Council of Investigators, Andy Grudko, there are probably only about six qualified, competent and properly equipped operators in the private sector who can provide specialist technical surveillance investigations -- or debugging services.
The government only has a right to bug phones, offices or homes of suspected criminals. Most bugs Van Staden finds are put in place for the purposes of industrial espionage.
The two main pieces of equipment used by Van Staden -- and most government agencies -- are the Locator Pro and the Scanlock Select Plus, both imported from the United Kingdom.
The Locator Pro picks up the presence of electronic items with diodes in them -- whether they are switched on or not. Tape recorders, microphones and almost anything electronic will be picked up by this device.
The Scanlock Select Plus is used to pick up radio transmissions in a room.
Because radio transmitters can be small, debuggers have to have a large array of tools to look into the tiniest nooks and crannies. Some transmitters are so small they can be hidden in keyholes.