Mon, 08 Mar 1999

Tapping phone calls to tough task

By Zatni Arbi

JAKARTA (JP): The tapping of the telephone conversation between Mr. President and Mr. Attorney General taught us a couple of things.

First, it showed how we, Indonesians in general, still have a lot to learn when it comes to taking precautions. Time and time again it is only after a gruesome accident or many lives have been lost that we begin to think of the measures we should have taken to ensure safety and security.

The phone lines between the top people in the top institutions in this country should be secured right from the beginning, yet the incident clearly proved they were not. The lines should have been constantly checked to see whether any of the wires were tapped; there is a lot of equipment -- and even services -- that are offered for this purpose. The entire activity comes under the name technical surveillance countermeasure (TSCM). Yet, we did not implement it.

Second, it has once again proven how cheap talk is. I've heard people saying that a certain group with strong financial backing must have carried out the eavesdropping because the technology is complex and expensive. An expert was even invited by a private TV station to comment on this issue, and he left me more perplexed than enlightened because he said phone bugging required expensive tools.

Third, it also shows that lying in public has become second nature to so many of our top government officials. Very sad, indeed, because we need them to give us examples of ethical behavior.

Anyone can

Here is my own story. About two years ago, the telephone in my house began ringing at the worst moment: 2:30 a.m. When I picked up the handset, no voice was heard. Yet there was soft music playing in the background. I waited, and after a minute or two, the prankster would hang up.

Determined to fight this intruder, I called a good friend who worked for PT Indosat and had friends at PT Telkom. I asked him for help because he had earlier helped another friend solve his problem of mysterious callers. I was told that I would first have to report my problem to the police and get a letter from them. He would then bring the letter to PT Telkom and they would tap my phone line 24 hours a day until we could determine the number from where the early morning caller made his calls. So, I obtained that piece of paper from the police precinct office and gave it to him.

After a few days, he called me back, saying that PT Telkom would not do that for me this time. The reason? Just some time before, some technicians in the switching room were listening to phone conversations for fun one night, and it turned out that they were putting their ears on the line that went into the house of one former high-ranking official. The eavesdropping was discovered, I was told, and from that time on nobody was allowed to tap phone conversations, not even for a request accompanied by a police report.

I had no idea how much of the story was true. I gave up. Instead, I set my fax machine on fax-receiving mode before I went to bed. It was an inconvenience because usually I forgot to set it back to call-receiving mode the next morning, but it helped discourage the joker. Today I just hope that PT Telkom will soon offer us the Caller ID feature, which is already available in some areas in Jakarta.

What does this tell us? It demonstrates that it's actually not difficult at all to tap other people's phone conversations. Anybody can do it. The people who worked at Telkom's switches could do it easily, although the company's executives adamantly deny it. Sometimes, fellow PT Telkom subscribers can listen to our conversations inadvertently. Parts of our telecommunications infrastructure, as I have written a couple of times in this column, are already aging. Crossed lines, in which we can hear other people talking but they cannot hear us, are common. Yet, when we talk, we tend to believe that the world contains only two people: Ourselves and the person we are talking to.

It's cheap, too

And it doesn't cost a fortune to tap a phone conversation. I still have with me -- and use it when necessary -- a phone tap device that I bought through the mail order while I was still a student at the University of Hawaii about 10 years ago. I no longer remember how much I paid for that gadget, but it works.

All I have to do is stick the signal picker, which has a suction cap on it, on the handset. The cable from this Taiwan- made device then goes into the microphone jack of a cassette recorder, and I'm ready to record my phone conversation. No one would know it if I taped my conversation because the line voltage would not be affected by the device.

I also found a phone line splitter in one of the thrift shops in Honolulu. Made by Radio Shack, this device allows me to channel the telephone signal right into the cassette recorder. The recording quality is superb, and there is no loss in the clarity of the phone line, either.

On the Internet, there are several Web sites that explain how you can tap a phone line. Go to, for example. You can see the site in the accompanying picture. I guess you know now how I felt when I heard claims that it would cost millions of dollars to tap a phone conversation.

Phone tapping is illegal in the States; even the FBI is required to first obtain a court order before it can do it to track down criminals. However, the activity has been going on for many years, and the gadgets are sold freely and cheaply. People use them in industrial espionage to steal each other's innovative ideas and inventions. Lawyers and private investigators use them to get evidence for divorces and other cases.