IF you have watched Netflix’s Narcos, the drama series of real-life drug kingpins in the late 1980s, you would probably have seen how one of the wealthiest of them, Pablo Escobar, had used a satellite phone to communicate with his family while on the lam to avoid detection by law enforcement agencies.
The authorities had wire tapped Escobar’s phone to triangulate his location; they were successful. The Medellin cartel chief was gunned down on a rooftop in his hometown of Medellin, Colombia, in December 1992.
Such technology has been used for many years, even until today. United States President Donald Trump, for instance, had accused Barack Obama of allegedly wire tapping his phones (as a political manoeuvre) at his Trump Tower office during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Wire or telephone tapping is also often used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, and the Internal Revenue Service. It is, however, strictly controlled to safeguard a person’s privacy.
In theory, wire tapping must be authorised by the court, attorney-general or a specific committee. It is necessary as a form of check and balance, and to avoid abuse.
The police and Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) have also been known to use it.
Wire tapping of private conversations by government or law enforcement agencies are provided for under several laws:
SECTION 116(C) of the Criminal Procedure Code allows the government to intercept and record private telephone conversations, but it must first be authorised by the public prosecutor or deputy public prosecutor (DPP).
SECTION 43 of the MACC Act 2009 states a DPP or an officer ofthe commission with the rank of commissioner may grant permission for an interception application by an officer (the rank of superintendent or above) if he considers that a conversation is likely to contain information which is relevant for any investigation into an offence under the act.
The public’s fear of being spied upon became real after a former minister’s sexual exploits at a hotel room was exposed a few years back. It is believed the sale of spy devices and detectors had risen when video clips of the exploits went viral.
The recently released MACC audio recordings, a topic of debate currently on social media, is causing grave concern too.
A number of people have been known to purchase spy detectors at Jalan Pasar, Kuala Lumpur, for between RM65 and RM150 a unit. Many are, however, unaware that these cheap radio frequency devices can only detect wireless cameras and are useless in detecting wired cameras with internal memory.
It is believed that local private investigators often charge up to RM10,000 or more for high-profile personalities to be spied upon.
A good quality spy-camera can fit in an area that provides power to the camera. In hotel rooms, the area near a high-definition television is a popular spot to set up the device; the TV in most rooms face the bed. Other areas that can camouflage cameras or listening devices are the mirrors, clocks, curtains, paintings and smoke detectors. Cameras can also be hidden in the wall near electric plug sockets and tissue boxes.
Most spy detectors are for uncovering wireless cameras, and not the hard-wired ones. Hard-wired cameras can only be detected by professiona l technical surveillance countermeasures (TSCM) or bug sweeping. TSCM can uncover illegal surveillance devices, unknown technical surveillance devices and identify security weaknesses.
It’s best to get professionals to sweep the room or building. There are few reliable companies that specialise in TSCM in Malaysia. Most modern surveillance technology devices are highly discreet and difficult to locate without TSCM.
Surveillance devices are easily available today. Anyone can buy one and use it to invade our privacy.
Third-generation phones (digital and data), or 3G, are said to be harder to monitor because they use digital encoded and compressed transmission.
However, it is still possible to intercept communications and decrypt the audio with the help of telecommunication companies or with the right technical equipment.
A close friend, who was a former Special Branch officer, once told me that “everything around us is unsafe”.
A pertinent reminder to all of us who own smartphones. Even land lines are risky.
The writer holds HELP University’s Institute of Crime and Criminology professorial chair and is president of the Malaysia Association of Certified Fraud Examiners.