Neo-listening: Signals intelligence in the age of terror

Posted on January 18, 2014

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While researching my recent article on Spy Numbers stations for January 15 issue of Radio World magazine, the thing that struck me the most was how real this subject is.

As a shortwave listening (SWL) kid tuning across the bands in the early 90’s, I was occasionally listening to real spy agencies sending real messages to real agents conducting espionage operations. Sure, sitting and listening to an automated lady’s voice rattling off long strings of monotonously pronounced numbers lacks some of the cache of, say, James Bond removing a micro listening device from the cap of an innocuous pen so he can receive his spectacular extrication instructions – but that’s the stuff of movies.

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The real world seldom moves as fast paced and with the same excitement of a movie. But the false elements of movies are usually grounded in some form of real-world facts.

And in the real world, spy’s and spy agencies are working very hard to listen in on the world’s communications. Gone are the Cold War pretexts for espionage, replaced by the new global security paradigm of anti-terrorism.  While I was researching this article, the Edward Snowden leaks were breaking on an almost daily basis. The Washington Post and other papers ran news stories, almost weekly, about the revelations on how the secret world of spy listening worked and how the American government had even spied on allies including Germany.

This neo-listening has certainly become more sophisticated and pervasive in today’s world of digital comms and the multiple communication platforms available to uses. But then again, maybe it hasn’t. What’s interesting is that highly trained and funded people are seated at consoles, scooping radio waves out of the ether and analyzing them. What many of us did for fun as kids, and continue to do out of curiosity as adults today, is a covert profession.

Recent articles in German newspaper DER SPIEGEL highlight this reality. A report from November of 2013 explains how pervasive, and easy, conducting espionage can be:

“According to security sources, it’s technically possible to monitor all mobile phones used in the Pariser Platz area with an 80-centimeter parabolic antenna,” The SPIEGEL article states.

“According to SPIEGEL’s information, the number of so-called illegals — agents who operate under the cover of a seemingly unremarkable civilian life — runs into double figures. The sheer volume of radio traffic between Russian and potential agents in Western Europe provides a strong indication of this.”

Another article from a September issue of SPIEGEL reports that, in response to the spying allegations, German police helicopters have actually flown over the American embassy, searching for evidence of the neo-listening equipment.

“A Federal Police helicopter had conducted a low-altitude flyover of the United States Consulate in Frankfurt in order to take high-resolution photographs. The apparent aim of the mission was to identify suspected listening posts on the roof of the consulate,” the article says.

According to the article, no government official would confirm the fly-over was conducted in an effort to search for listening devices, but many speculate it did serve another purpose.

“Experts believe the move was intended more as a symbolic gesture that as a serious effort to try to find surveillance equipment,” the article says.

One thing is clear, if governments are building listening posts on the roofs of their embassies, radio signals worth intercepting are being transmitted and radio hobbyists should be doing their best to avoid intercepting, analyzing, decoding and understanding those transmissions.

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Posted in: Espionage