Rumors saying that people can verify if their cellphones or landlines are under surveillance by dialing *960*# and *26 are false, telecommunication experts said recently, as the snowballing controversy surrounding the wiretapping of government officials conducted by the Special Investigation Division (SID) of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office sparked concern among the public that private citizens are also under surveillance.
The SID initially wiretapped Democratic Progressive Party caucus whip Ker Chien-ming’s (柯建銘) telephones to probe allegations that he asked Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) to use his influence to ease legal pressure on him.
After receiving a court notice informing him that the wiretaps had been discontinued following his acquittal in a breach of trust case, Ker revealed that one of the numbers listed on the notice as being under surveillance was the Legislative Yuan’s switchboard number.
Prosecutor-General Huang Shih-ming (黃世銘) has since apologized for the incident, saying that the switchboard was bugged only because it had been mistaken for the cellphone of one of Ker’s aides.
According to telecommunication experts, the Communication Security and Surveillance Act (通訊保障及監察法) stipulates that as investigators must conduct phone surveillance directly from a system’s mainframe, individual mobile phones are not tapped, which means that cellphone users are incapable of knowing if they are under surveillance or not.
To place a phone under surveillance, prosecutors have to get a wiretap request approved. Once the request is granted, telecom technicians are required by Article 17 of the act to set up a direct link between the telephone system mainframe and the prosecutor’s surveillance room, the experts said.
After the link is set up, the investigators have full control over the mainframe and can tap into any cellphone connected to the mainframe with just a few clicks on a keyboard, the experts added.
“We [the technicians] can’t know whose conversations are being recorded,” one of the experts said, adding that it is not possible to trace a wiretap even if it is detected.
Yang Hung-shan (楊鴻山), head of the Department of Technology at Bunny TSCM Security, a private anti-surveillance company, said surveillance can be split into two categories: the type conducted by intelligence units and the kind done by private investigators or individuals.
Intelligence agencies tap directly into a phone system’s mainframe and since telecom routing systems have built-in electrical impedance, users cannot call their own mainframes directly, Yang said, adding that “intelligence agencies wouldn’t be that stupid” to tap something that was so easily detectable.
By contrast, private wiretaps are easier to detect, Yang said.
During telephone conversations, the target’s phone is directly linked to the individual who has bugged the device — either by installing spying software or through other means — and would therefore be contributing to the cost of the phone call or the device’s power usage, Yang added.
If a person finds that calls are suddenly draining their phone battery faster, or that their phone bill has risen unexpectedly, then their phone may be bugged, Yang said.
Furthermore, if a phone record contains a lot of SMS messages sent to one number that the user does not recognize, the recipient of the texts could be the person who placed the bug, Yang added.
People who suspect they are under surveillance because their calls drop suddenly should bear in mind that a loss of signal is far more likely to be caused by bad reception than a wiretap, the experts said.