Russian security services have the ability to monitor Skype communications, IT security experts said Thursday.
Ilya Sachkov, general director of the Group-IB computer security firm, said Russian security services have been able not only to eavesdrop on communications over Skype, but also to determine users’ locations “for a couple of years now,” Vedomosti reported.
“That’s why our company’s employees are prohibited from discussing work-related issues via Skype,” Sachkov said.
According to Peak Systems head Maxim Amm, when Microsoft bought Skype in May 2011, it fitted it out with a special technology for legal eavesdropping of online communications. The technology involved switching users to a special mode in which their messages are encrypted on a server where security agencies can decipher and read messages and voice conversations.
In the original Skype settings, messages were encrypted and thus impossible for third parties to read.
Another industry expert said that Microsoft provides monitoring capabilities for all secret services worldwide, not only Russian ones, Vedomosti reported.
Mikhail Pryanishnikov, the head of Microsoft’s Russian branch, said earlier that the company could legally give the Federal Security Service access to Skype’s source code.
Neither the Interior Ministry nor the Federal Security Service have commented on the news, but a source in the police said that “monitoring Skype cannot be considered an insurmountable task for Russian law enforcement agencies.”
Two experts on information security told Vedomosti that Russian security services do not always need a court decision to get access to private communications on Skype, and that in some cases they can eavesdrop “simply by request.”
British intelligence nerve-centre MI5 is recruiting fluent Chinese speakers to eavesdrop on phone calls – but it got more than it bargained for when its Mandarin comprehension test was ridiculed by Redditors.
Blighty’s Security Service set up an online language exam, which encourages peeps with Mandarin, Russian, Sylheti, Swahili, Somali and Pashto skills to test their suitability for a role with the service.
It explains as follows:
The tests reflect the nature of some of the work of our Foreign Language Analysts, Mandarin Intelligence Analysts and Russian Analysts, who listen to lawfully intercepted phone calls made by the targets of our investigations.
You’ll use your judgement, language skills and cultural knowledge to decide between those calls that are important and those calls that are not, and transcribe your findings in clear and succinct written English to help further investigations.
However, users of the wildly popular social news website Reddit took the Chinese exam – which requires the applicant read or listen to a passage and answer a set of related questions – and were none too impressed with the quality of the language.
One Redditor, willdunz, opined yesterday: “This can’t be the real admission test right? I mean nobody talks like that in China; even those news anchors on CCTV [China Network Television] talk faster than this.”
Another, snackburros, claimed that the “written passage has some grammar, usage and sentence structure awkwardness to it”. One wag, getting his MI6 and MI5 mixed up, added: “Easiest test ever. I’m gonna be the first American James Bond in China.”
To be fair, the test is meant to be a basic first hurdle for those interested in such a role, rather than a green light for Chinese speakers into one of the UK’s most secretive and revered institutions.
MI5 explained as much in the following disclaimer:
The clips do not reflect the full complexity of the challenges offered by our analyst roles but they are indicative of the type of skills successful candidates should be comfortable using on a routine basis.
The Security Service, which mainly tackles major crime and terrorism within the UK, needs more language experts as it makes more requests to telcos than any other body for information on phone calls and internet activities in the UK.
That was according to a parliamentary report last month into a controversial draft communications surveillance law, which calls for much wider snooping powers. Officials claimed there is a 25 per cent “shortfall” in the comms data the authorities want and what they can currently get.
(09-25) 13:49 PDT OAKLAND — A divorce attorney pleaded not guilty Tuesday to charges that she hired a private investigator, who was a central character in Contra Costa County’s “dirty DUI” scandal, to illegally install listening devices inside the car of a client’s ex-husband.
Mary Nolan, 60, appeared in Oakland federal court, where she also pleaded innocent to four counts of tax evasion. She faces up to 15 years in prison and $750,000 in fines if convicted on all counts.
Nolan was first linked to disgraced private investigator Christopher Butler,50, in 2010, after two men told The Chronicle that she used their drunken driving arrests against them in divorce and custody battles. Both men have since filed civil lawsuits against Nolan alleging she orchestrated their arrests through Butler.
Butler pleaded guilty earlier this year to using attractive women to meet estranged husbands in bars and set them up for drunken driving arrests by police officers tied for him.
Butler, who is scheduled to be sentenced Tuesday afternoon, admitted in court papers that Nolan referred clients to him. He also estimated that he bugged between 75 and 100 cars during his tenure as a private investigators.
Nolan was never charged in connection with the drunken driving scandal that snared Butler and others.
But prosecutors alleged in their separate case against Nolan that in at least one instance she hired Butler to bug the car of a client’s spouse so she could use the recorded information against him in divorce proceedings.
Nolan’s court appearance drew the attention of Phil Dominic, 55, of Oakland, who said Nolan represented his ex-girlfriend in a 2010 custody dispute over their son. His case is not the one forming the basis of the criminal case against Nolan.
Dominic said Nolan lied about him to family court judges and destroyed his relationship with the mother of his son, as well as his child.
“This is Christmas for me,” said Dominic, who heckled Nolan as she left the courthouse.
Dominic said he was organizing a group of men whose wives were represented by Nolan to discuss taking legal action against the attorney.
“I told her one day she’d get caught,” Dominic said. “I told her, ‘One day I’m going to see you on the other side.”
Outside court, Nolan’s attorney Jay Weill declined to comment.
Nolan is scheduled to appear in court next month for further proceedings.
Justin Berton is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.
A Maryland Transit Administration decision to record the conversations of bus drivers and passengers to investigate crimes, accidents and poor customer service has come under attack from privacy advocates and state lawmakers who say it may go too far.
The first 10 buses — marked with signs to alert passengers to the open microphones — began service this week in Baltimore, and officials expect to expand that to 340 buses, about half the fleet, by next summer. Microphones are incorporated in the video surveillance system that has been in place for years.
“We want to make sure people feel safe, and this builds up our arsenal of tools to keep our patrons safe,” said Ralign Wells, MTA administrator. “The audio completes the information package for investigators and responders.”
Wells said the system was deemed legal by the state attorney general’s office and letters were sent to the American Civil Liberties Union and the union representing bus drivers informing them of the initiative. A spokesman for the attorney general’s office confirmed that transit officials were advised by their counsel that based on a 2000 appeals court decision, the audio recordings did not violate the state wiretapping law.
But an ACLU lawyer said he was “flabbergasted” that MTA officials would try to record people’s conversations under the guise of a pilot program after a similar proposal was rejected in 2009 by the state’s highest-ranking transportation official and by the General Assembly on three occasions.
“People don’t want or need to have their private conversations recorded by MTA as a condition of riding a bus,” said David Rocah, a staff attorney with the Maryland chapter of the ACLU. “A significant number of people have no viable alternative to riding a bus, and they should not be forced to give up their privacy rights.”
Wells said a digital recorder similar to an aviation black box and capable of storing 30 days of audio and video information is locked in an equipment box on each MTA bus. In the event of an accident, an incident involving passengers or a complaint against a driver, investigators can remove the recorder and download the file for review.
The cost is negligible, Wells said, since the six cameras inside each bus are capable of recording audio and all new buses will have audio-video systems as standard equipment.
MTA police dispatchers receive 45 to 100 daily calls for assistance from bus drivers for everything from an unhappy rider to criminal activity, said Capt. Burna McCollum, commander of the MTA police technical services division.
Video is a critical tool for investigators sorting out the details of an incident, but when witnesses walk away, are reluctant to cooperate or give conflicting accounts, an audio recording can fill in missing information, McCollum said.
Surveillance policies in the region vary widely. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority use security cameras on their buses but draw the line at audio recordings of passengers. Montgomery County’s 335-bus Ride On system is about to add audio surveillance to its video capability. Baltimore’s nearly three-year-old Circulator buses record both video and audio.
Two members of the state Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee say the MTA’s decision to record passengers without their consent is troubling.
“It’s an end run and ripe for a court challenge,” said Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat. “They have absolutely no grounds to do this. If we can’t get them to listen and change their minds, we’ll deal with this … and make them defend what’s indefensible.”
Sen. Jamie Raskin, a Montgomery County Democrat and a constitutional law expert, said that while he understands the need to protect public transportation customers, “this sounds kind of Big Brotherish to me.”
Raskin said bus patrons should have been consulted, and a clear policy on who has access to the recordings and how long they are kept should have been spelled out to the public before the program was initiated.
“This is such a giant step forward in dissolving the privacy expectations of people who ride the bus,” he said. “Legislators are going to want to know what the compelling reason is for initiating this now.”
In 2009, the acting secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation derailed a similar MTA proposal and asked for more review, calling privacy matters “the ultimate test of people’s trust in government.”
In each of the last three legislative sessions, bills filed on behalf of MTA to authorize recording devices and establish ground rules for their use were rejected in committee.
“When House and Senate committees individually look at a proposal and nearly unanimously reject it, you know it’s bad public policy,” Brochin said.
But one of the bills’ sponsors, Del. Melvin Stukes, an MTA customer service investigator, said state officials have been “gun-shy” in dealing with the ACLU and unions. The intent of the legislation, he said, was to eliminate bad language that often sparks violence.
“This is not your bathroom. This is not your bedroom. Buses are public spaces and people are elbow to elbow,” Stukes said. “I’m not trying to punish people. I’m just trying to clean up problems I hear about every day so that people realize that MTA is trying to provide a more congenial, more cordial ride.”
The chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee predicts that the entire matter will have to be resolved by the legislature.
“If this is something that’s necessary and useful, standards must be set for oversight and accountability,” said Sen. Brian Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat. “The job of figuring this out definitely should not be left to the agency doing the listening.”
candy [dot] thomson [at] baltsun [dot] com
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SUTTONS BAY — A settlement agreement that ended a long-running and acrimonious lawsuit against top Leelanau County sheriff’s officials will be public in a matter of weeks, authorities said.
Leelanau County’s Board of Commissioners recently voted to settle a federal lawsuit filed against the county, Sheriff Mike Oltersdorf and Undersheriff Scott Wooters by a group of deputies in 2009. The deputies accused Oltersdorf and Wooters of eavesdropping, among other misconduct.
County officials won’t reveal settlement terms, but county Administrator Chet Janik said financial and other details will be available once attorneys file the final agreement with court.
“That document will be public,” he said. “I’m guessing it will probably be about six weeks.”
The board voted 5-1 to accept the settlement, with Melinda Lautner dissenting and David Marshall absent.
Janik said the county is happy to finally close the doors on the suit.
“Everyone is glad it’s been resolved,” Janik said. “It’s been a long process for all sides, and it’s caused tremendous stress on all sides.”
Lautner said she believed settling was a “disservice” to the county.
“My vote, I thought, was in the best interest of not only my constituents, but all of the taxpayers,” she said. “There’s just a lot of information we received in closed session that the public was not aware of that would have come to light had it gone to trial.”
Trial was scheduled to start next week, and Janik said the county’s insurance company advised the county to settle, rather than risk losing at trial.
“It was a very difficult choice for commissioners, as they have some strong feelings about it,” he said.
The suit stems from allegations that Oltersdorf and Wooters illegally listened to conversations on what employees believed to be private lines at the sheriff’s department on several occasions dating to 2006. Sheriff’s administrators then retaliated against employees who publicly criticized the practice, the suit alleged.
Oltersdorf and Wooters both declined comment. Mike Dettmer, an attorney for the deputies, also declined comment.
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