Telephones: Landline

The telephone. One of mankind's greatest inventions. It has had a truly amazing impact on modern day life. Back in the last few years of the 19th century, the Postmaster General (UK GPO) was quoted as saying that the telephone was an invention of no significance. It just shows how wrong one can be.

The 1990's have seen a revolution in the way we use the telephone. More and more people have their own phone, many have a second line now for a fax or a modem. We have embraced the telephone and it makes up part of our whole 'quality of life' package. How many people do you know who would be happy living without a phone?

In the UK, the national provider, British Telecom, is still responsible for some 95% of telephone installations. The cable companies have yet to make much of an impact on BT's stronghold.

Most of us treat the telephone as a reasonably secure means of communication. So much so, that people seem to dismiss the need for security when it comes to the telephone altogether. I'm not suggesting that we should be using voice encryption techniques, as the telephone system itself is quite secure. Back in the 50's people knew the operator could listen in, so they guarded their conversations accordingly - today the operator is no longer required to initiate calls thanks to Subscriber Trunk Dialling, so it is assumed that there's nobody around to listen in.

However, from a snooping standpoint, the telephone is a useful and fairly simple way of getting information on people. As I've already said, many people simply use the telephone, often discussing confidential matters without a thought.

Take a standard exchange line, probably similar to the one you've got at home. How can that be monitored? Actually, it's frighteningly simple. It's possible to bug your phone line without setting foot inside your home - everything you say and hear can be monitored. Modern electronics make the task very simple, with no wires to cut, no line boxes to tamper with - just a simple coil that fits around the cable.

There has been much debate recently as to the existence of devices that causes the microphone part of your telephone handset to become active without making your telephone ring.  I have it on good authority that these devices do exist and are available to the security industry.  How do you know someone isn't listening to you now?

Many people make the task even easier - they're the ones using analogue portable phones (not cellular phones, though the same warning applies to them). These phones use standard radio frequencies between 46MHz and 50MHz. Anyone with a radio capable of tuning to these frequencies can simply turn on and tune in. Of course the range is quite limited, but often up to 300m, so someone listening to your phone calls may not be obvious. As this is radio, and it's passive, you have no idea that this is happening.

Another downside to this is that someone could concieveable come along with a hand unit from a similar phone, sit in their car outside your house, change the channel selector until they get a dial tone and then start making calls on your bill. Nice work if you can get it.

If you have to have a portable, or cordless phone, buy a digital cordless model - one that conforms to the DECT standard, which uses encryption.

Yet another security problem with phones is one that's very rarely, if ever, thought about. Big Brother. Oh yes, your phone calls can be monitored by the Government. Officially they don't do this of course, it's illegal for a Government agency to listen to phone calls without a warrant in the UK. The same cannot be said of the US NSA (National Security Agency).

Rumoured to be based at the top secret GCHQ (Government Communications HQ) in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, the NSA can monitor any phone call they like. The sheer volume of phone calls would dictate that they screen out the chaff - presumably done by computer, maybe by phrase or word recognition, possibly just screened by destination number or country.

At another UK site, Menwith Hill on the North Yorkshire moors, it is widely reported that the US government are colluding with British authorities to spy on citizens of the United Kingdom.  Menwith Hill is listed as an RAF establishment, though few, if any RAF personnel are stationed there.

Menwith Hill has appeared numerous times in the national press over the last few years.   It has been noted in Parliament that the NSA is indeed monitoring all kinds of telecommunication (voice, fax, telex, email, etc.) at a rate of anything up to 2 million intercepts per hour!  BT have admitted, in court, to supplying Menwith Hill with up to three fibre optic circuits for the purpose of monitoring the telephone network.

The importance of the site to the intelligence gathering community should not be underestimated.  It has been attributed with the interception of secret communication between Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations - these commuications apparently indicated that Iraq had no intention of withdrawl from Kuwait in 1991.  The result?  Operation Desert Storm.

As Menwith Hill is on UK soil, there is an agreement between the UK-US Governments regarding all sigint (Signals Intelligence) gathering.  It is rumoured that not all is well between the two countries - the UK, at times, feeling that information is either not being passed down to them from the US, or information is being diseminated to other NATO allies against the best (economic) interests of the United Kingdom.

For more information on Menwith Hill, see the following sites: - Colour plan of Menwith Hill site, as published by 'The Times' newspaper. - Detailed information on Menwith Hill from the Intelligence Resource Program

As nobody really admits to these activites, how do you know it's being done in your best interests? Well, you don't. You just have to accept it.

Vendemen -Updated 27 December 1998