Saturday, January 21, 2006

Wiretapping Garci's GSM Digital Cellphone--and Hiawatha

LTHOUGH ORGANIZED CRIMINAL SYNDICATES and certain political Mafias engage in the practice, imagine what would happen to the multi-trillion dollar global telecommunications industry if it were routinely possible to EAVESDROP on the conversations of cellphone users. It is not as easy as one might suppose, even from within a network service provider like Smart or Globe. After all, there would be a pandemic of blackmail, extortion, scandal, commercial, political, and personal espionage that would result if the telecommunications channel used by ordinary customers were not inherently secure, at least to the satisfaction of most and the exclusion of all but the most determined and perhaps legitimate purposes. Consider for example that under Philippine law, one of the conditions for a judge to grant a Court order authorizing wiretapping is in kidnapping cases. But when the cellular telecommunication networks became DIGITAL, data transmission security became immeasurably enhanced by the use of mathematical encryption technology. Of course, nothing can be made absolutely secure, as the mere existence of the Garci Recordings indubitably proves (no matter what the conversations in them were actually about.)

SUBVERSION OF THE GLOBAL TELECOM SYSTEM: Elections Commissioner Virgilio Garcillano was wiretapped talking to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo while using a modern digital cellphone supplied to him by Mrs. Bong Pineda. However, such digital eavesdropping is not the routine work of common spies or private eyes, being the almost exclusive province of National Security Agencies and Law Enforcement, requiring fairly sophisticated and expensive equipment, along with the know-how of expert professionals and rigorous legal clearances. ISAFP and whoever ordered the 2004 wiretapping operation may make it seem like such wiretapping of the digital cellular telecommunications network is just another harmless act of political espionage "only in da Pilipins." But it would be devastating should it ever be proved that they did so for partisan political purposes, routinely, widely and without the required Court Orders. The global telecommunication system is not designed to be easily, casually or routinely breached except under quite specific circumstances that are recognized, perhaps quietly by the manufacturers and designers of such gear. Design, material and operating specs ensure that it is generally impossible to eavesdrop of conversations without legal authorization, even if you are working within network service providers and telephone companies. So it would be nothing short of a subversion of global confidence in the integrity of mobile communications to and from the Philippines. Reaction from individuals, businesses, and governments abroad could be quite adverse. I mean, are there conversations of foreign dignitaries, businessmen, tourists or other personalities sitting in hard disks at ISAFP HQ in Camp Crame, open to casual listening by their girlfriends, or for sale to interested parties along with those of the political opposition?

AT THE SAME TIME THERE ARE LEGITIMATE USES OF WIRETAPPING: I think it is important to understand what is needed technically and politically, in order to wiretap so called digital cellphones, which were famously used in the deadly escapades (as bomb triggers!) and the escape of the Indonesian terrorist, Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi in 2003. Both technical and policy issues arise. For example, to what extent are Mobile Service Operators like Smart and Globe needed when conducting legally sanctioned wiretapping operations properly sanctioned by Republic Act 4200, for example in anti-terrorist operations? Such a question and its answer could have significant impact on issues affecting national security, privacy rights, regulation of telecommunications utilities, and the entire love affair of the Filipino nation with the Cellphone.

SENATE INVESTIGATION OF ISAFP WIRETAPPING Such considerations are also important to the ongoing investigations being conducted by the Senate Defense Committee of Sen. Rodolfo Biazon on the alleged use of the Intelligence Service of the AFP (ISAFP) for partisan political purposes in the illegal recording of conversations of the Commander in Chief and other private and public persons during the 2004 election period. This post is dedicated to the hope of furthering the public's understanding of certain highly technical and scientific aspects of Gloriagate, the Garci Recordings and their crucial importance to the broader NATIONAL SECURITY challenges that have arisen. I should state the conclusion right at the outset in case the Reader is in a hurry:

In cases where law enforcement authorities do not have physical acess to the Subscriber Identity Module or SIM Card, in the cellphone being wiretapped, the full cooperation of the Mobile Service Provider is absolutely necessary in order to get a certain set of cryptographic key codes without which it is mathematically impossible to decode the digitized, encrypted transmissions made with the Sim card in the cellphone being monitored.

By the way, According to Michaelangelo Zuce's testimony in the Senate this week, Mrs. Bong Pineda gave him the GSM cellphone used by Virgilio Garcillano that was later supposedly wiretapped by ISAFP, telling him they had installed the SIM card in it to explain why the package was open when it was given to Zuce....But read on...

THE PHYSICS OF HUMAN CONVERSATIONS If you gently tap with the flat of your hand, on the surface of the water in a swimming pool, you will notice a complicated pattern of waves and ripples emanating away from it. Similarly, in ordinary face-to-face human conversations, our vocal chords, tongue, mouth, lips and head, perturb the surrounding swimming pool of air with a complicated pattern of waves and ripples. These waves and ripples grow bigger or smaller with the changes in the volume or loudness of the speech, and are of a high or low frequency depending on its pitch. Thus, when they impinge on the eardrum they produce physical vibrations that are analogous to the original speech that produced them. The brain, in an utterly mysterious way, knows how to then interpret such vibrations and infuse them with meaning and to induce its own air thrashing machines to produce an appropriate response of atmospheric disturbance.

EAVESDROPPING was probably invented as soon as there were more than two human beings on the planet. Back then, the work of a SPY consisted of directly overhearing physical conversations, perhaps while hiding behind a tree or hidden in a dark corner of the cave. Or pretending to be stone deaf.

THINGS GOT COMPLICATED however once people figured out ways of talking to each other without being in each other's physical presence. Americans Indians, for example, were known to use SMOKE SIGNALS to communicate with widely dispersed members of their tribes. From one hilltop site to the next, a smoke-signalled message could be relayed over hundreds of miles in a matter of minutes. But notice that since their enemies could also see such signals, it was necessary to invent CODING or ENCRYPTION to ensure the integrity of private communications! Only those privy to a prearranged method of DECRYPTING the coded messages could understand them. Of course, this did not prevent Chief Sitting Bull's mother-in-law from hearing about his latest romp in the No.2 Village, as long as she was privy to the Code. Human beings, also in America, soon invented a way to have direct, discreet, spoken conversations between two people separated by a large distance: the TELEPHONE.

MODERN WIRETAPPING was probably invented on the day after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, which modern Filipinos call a LANDLINE, and which make up the Plain Old Telephone System (POTS), the official name of the ordinary landline telephone network. A telephone sends and receives sound by converting human speech to and from an analogous electrical signal that can be transmitted over a network of copper wires that interconnect all the telephones through the phone company's main switch. You just tapped into the right wire with another wire and if you fed the electrical signal into another telephone you could listen to it and record it. With a Court Order of course! But the Injuns just wouldn't settle for that, because after a while they needed to contact the wigwam from their horses, which of course could not be wired. So wireless telecommunications devices were invented, the cellphone being just the Killer Application of that basic idea of easy, reliable, MOBILE COMMUNICATIONS. But this really made the work of spies and eavesdroppers a lot harder in some ways, and a lot easier in others.

GSM -- which stands for Global System for Mobile-communications -- is the de facto standard for cellular telecommunictions networks in Europe and Asia. GSM has been used in over 100 countries since 1991. Both Smart and Globe in the Philippines use GSM systems now. Smart actually started with an older analog system which did not support SMS (Short Messaging Service) but was forced to change due to the wild popularity of TEXTING after Globe originally introduced that feature as a marketing come-on for their own cellular service.

The difference between talking to each other on analog landlines of the Plain Old Telephone System and talking to each other with cellphones on digital cellular networks is like the difference between direct spoken conversations and conversations conducted using smoke signals. Cellphone conversations are broadcast into the atmosphere like smoke signals, then picked up by "hilltop stations" (which Pinoys call CELL SITES) ; transmitted to the mountain tops of Smart, Globe, and Sun for interconnection to other hilltop cellsites which deliver it to the intended wigwam, where the reverse process repeats. Now the question arises-- How does each wigwam or brave-on-a-pony know which is intended for it? Well, even the Indians already knew the answer to that: the conversations must be encoded and cryptographically secure for efficient and secure transmission. In the modern cellphone that function is accomplished inside the SUBSCRIBER IDENTIY MODULE or Sim Card. In order to wiretap someone like Virgilio Garcillano with a GSM digital cellphone, one only needs to pick up the digital transmissions to and from his cellphone and the mobile operator's cell site AND decode the same from a knowledge of his encryption keys and ID numbers. Evidently, ISAFP and Vidal Doble were picking up the digital transmissions of Garci's phone, and because his SIM had previously been scanned for its cryptographic secrets, they could easily decipher his smoke signals for whoever needed the information.

SECRETS OF THE SIM CARD AND CELLPHONE UNIT: From a write up of the GSM system (University of Waterloo), here is a succinct description of these matters--
Since the radio medium can be accessed by anyone, authentication of users to prove that they are who they claim to be, is a very important element of a mobile network. Authentication involves two functional entities, the SIM card in the mobile, and the Authentication Center (AuC). Each subscriber is given a secret key, one copy of which is stored in the SIM card and the other in the AuC. During authentication, the AuC generates a random number that it sends to the mobile. Both the mobile and the AuC then use the random number, in conjuction with the subscriber's secret key and a ciphering algorithm called A3, to generate a signed response (SRES) that is sent back to the AuC.

If the number sent by the mobile is the same as the one calculated by the AuC, the subscriber is authenticated. The same initial random number and subscriber key are also used to compute the ciphering key using an algorithm called A8. This ciphering key, together with the TDMA frame number, use the A5 algorithm to create a 114 bit sequence that is XORed with the 114 bits of a burst (the two 57 bit blocks). Enciphering is an option for the fairly paranoid, since the signal is already coded, interleaved, and transmitted in a TDMA manner, thus providing protection from all but the most persistent and dedicated eavesdroppers.

Another level of security is performed on the mobile equipment itself, as opposed to the mobile subscriber. As mentioned earlier, each GSM terminal is identified by a unique International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number. A list of IMEIs in the network is stored in the Equipment Identity Register (EIR).
You can read the six thousand page International Specification for GSM through GSMWORLD.

There are also many excellent articles in the Web about such things as cyrptography and codes. Perhaps the most important example of human cryptographic accomplishment next to LANGUAGE itself, is the invention of WRITING. Personally I prefer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's description of that in the Song of Hiawatha Chapter 14--

In those days said Hiawatha,
"Lo! how all things fade and perish!
From the memory of the old men
Pass away the great traditions,
The achievements of the warriors,
The adventures of the hunters,
All the wisdom of the Medas,
All the craft of the Wabenos,
All the marvellous dreams and visions
Of the Jossakeeds, the Prophets!
"Great men die and are forgotten,
Wise men speak; their words of wisdom
Perish in the ears that hear them,
Do not reach the generations
That, as yet unborn, are waiting
In the great, mysterious darkness
Of the speechless days that shall be!
"On the grave-posts of our fathers
Are no signs, no figures painted;
Who are in those graves we know not,
Only know they are our fathers.
Of what kith they are and kindred,
From what old, ancestral Totem,
Be it Eagle, Bear, or Beaver,
They descended, this we know not,
Only know they are our fathers.
"Face to face we speak together,
But we cannot speak when absent,
Cannot send our voices from us
To the friends that dwell afar off;
Cannot send a secret message,
But the bearer learns our secret,
May pervert it, may betray it,
May reveal it unto others."
Thus said Hiawatha, walking
In the solitary forest,
Pondering, musing in the forest,
On the welfare of his people.
From his pouch he took his colors,
Took his paints of different colors,
On the smooth bark of a birch-tree
Painted many shapes and figures,
Wonderful and mystic figures,
And each figure had a meaning,
Each some word or thought suggested.
Gitche Manito the Mighty,
He, the Master of Life, was painted
As an egg, with points projecting
To the four winds of the heavens.
Everywhere is the Great Spirit,
Was the meaning of this symbol.
Gitche Manito the Mighty,
He the dreadful Spirit of Evil,
As a serpent was depicted,
As Kenabeek, the great serpent.
Very crafty, very cunning,
Is the creeping Spirit of Evil,
Was the meaning of this symbol.
Life and Death he drew as circles,
Life was white, but Death was darkened;
Sun and moon and stars he painted,
Man and beast, and fish and reptile,
Forests, mountains, lakes, and rivers.
For the earth he drew a straight line,
For the sky a bow above it;
White the space between for daytime,
Filled with little stars for night-time;
On the left a point for sunrise,
On the right a point for sunset,
On the top a point for noontide,
And for rain and cloudy weather
Waving lines descending from it.
Footprints pointing towards a wigwam
Were a sign of invitation,
Were a sign of guests assembling;
Bloody hands with palms uplifted
Were a symbol of destruction,
Were a hostile sign and symbol.
All these things did Hiawatha
Show unto his wondering people,
And interpreted their meaning,
And he said: "Behold, your grave-posts
Have no mark, no sign, nor symbol,
Go and paint them all with figures;
Each one with its household symbol,
With its own ancestral Totem;
So that those who follow after
May distinguish them and know them."
And they painted on the grave-posts
On the graves yet unforgotten,
Each his own ancestral Totem,
Each the symbol of his household;
Figures of the Bear and Reindeer,
Of the Turtle, Crane, and Beaver,
Each inverted as a token
That the owner was departed,
That the chief who bore the symbol
Lay beneath in dust and ashes.
And the Jossakeeds, the Prophets,
The Wabenos, the Magicians,
And the Medicine-men, the Medas,
Painted upon bark and deer-skin
Figures for the songs they chanted,
For each song a separate symbol,
Figures mystical and awful,
Figures strange and brightly colored;
And each figure had its meaning,
Each some magic song suggested.
The Great Spirit, the Creator,
Flashing light through all the heaven;
The Great Serpent, the Kenabeek,
With his bloody crest erected,
Creeping, looking into heaven;
In the sky the sun, that listens,
And the moon eclipsed and dying;
Owl and eagle, crane and hen-hawk,
And the cormorant, bird of magic;
Headless men, that walk the heavens,
Bodies lying pierced with arrows,
Bloody hands of death uplifted,
Flags on graves, and great war-captains
Grasping both the earth and heaven!
Such as these the shapes they painted
On the birch-bark and the deer-skin;
Songs of war and songs of hunting,
Songs of medicine and of magic,
All were written in these figures,
For each figure had its meaning,
Each its separate song recorded.
Nor forgotten was the Love-Song,
The most subtle of all medicines,
The most potent spell of magic,
Dangerous more than war or hunting!
Thus the Love-Song was recorded,
Symbol and interpretation.
First a human figure standing,
Painted in the brightest scarlet;
`T Is the lover, the musician,
And the meaning is, "My painting
Makes me powerful over others."
Then the figure seated, singing,
Playing on a drum of magic,
And the interpretation, "Listen!
`T Is my voice you hear, my singing!"
Then the same red figure seated
In the shelter of a wigwam,
And the meaning of the symbol,
"I will come and sit beside you
In the mystery of my passion!"
Then two figures, man and woman,
Standing hand in hand together
With their hands so clasped together
That they seemed in one united,
And the words thus represented
Are, "I see your heart within you,
And your cheeks are red with blushes!"
Next the maiden on an island,
In the centre of an Island;
And the song this shape suggested
Was, "Though you were at a distance,
Were upon some far-off island,
Such the spell I cast upon you,
Such the magic power of passion,
I could straightway draw you to me!"
Then the figure of the maiden
Sleeping, and the lover near her,
Whispering to her in her slumbers,
Saying, "Though you were far from me
In the land of Sleep and Silence,
Still the voice of love would reach you!"
And the last of all the figures
Was a heart within a circle,
Drawn within a magic circle;
And the image had this meaning:
"Naked lies your heart before me,
To your naked heart I whisper!"
Thus it was that Hiawatha,
In his wisdom, taught the people
All the mysteries of painting,
All the art of Picture-Writing,
On the smooth bark of the birch-tree,
On the white skin of the reindeer,
On the grave-posts of the village.
The subject of codes and cryptography will be a big part of the Gloriagate controversy, because I am convinced that the so-called Mother of all Garci Tapes was in fact a DIGITAL MASS STORAGE DEVICE, a bunch of WAV files as I previously conjectured in WAS THE ADAM AND EVE OF ALL TAPES DIGITAL?

This has some mind-blowing implications for how a WITNESS testifies to the integrity and veracity of recorded conversations for the purpose of admitting the same as evidence in a crime.


Amadeo said...


Your hunch is that these files are kept as .wav files on HDDs.

We know that .wav files are typically used for music CDs, and take up good space. Thus, much larger, too.

So won't the most likelihood be that those stored files are kept as compressed files like the now more popular .mp3, or the .wma files which go well with conversations and attuned to phoneline speeds?

I would also suppose that if these files were downloaded and uploaded electronically to many sites, the perpetrator(s) would much prefer the much smaller compressed files.

Rizalist said...

Right you are Amadeo. Once collected the data could migrate to any number of digital file formats. I can't say for sure that the original file formats at ISAFP were WAV files, except that many of the vendors advertising systems for sale do mention this specific file format. Also remember that though MP3 is great for music, it is a LOSSY commpression algorithm, like all mpeg realizations. (direct cosine transform approximation). Maybe the spook business is more conservative and has stuck to the older more space hogging format. Then again with HDD prices plummeting, this has not been a big concern for their clients.