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Apartheid Era Tapping Resources up for Sale to the Highest Bidder 09/09/2001

South African Private Investigator Raymond Van Staden behind a Scanlock Select Plus

By Paul Kirk

Paul Kirk delves into the telephone-tapping underworld to report on three high profile bugging scandals recently uncovered by the South African press.

The three high profile bugging scandals, which recently hit the press in South Africa, bring into sharp focus just how vulnerable businessmen may be when operating in the country. First, the Chairman of the parastatal Umgeni Water, one of Africa’s largest water suppliers, was implicated in illegally tapping the telephones of trade unionists. He was nailed when the South African press obtained a letter from Umgeni Water’s lawyer to Cromet Molepo, the chairman of the institution, confirming payment to a telephone tapper for the illegal bugging of telephone lines. The boards’ lawyer, Robinson Manzi, has made no attempt to hide the fact that Molepo used his accounts, which under South African Law are privileged and could not be used as evidence by police, to pay the telephone tapper. By doing so Molepo effectively launderd the payments for an illegal service.

When INTERSEC phoned Manzi for comment he said: “I have withdrawn as Umgeni’s legal representative. And if Umgeni Water is not prosecuted for this matter I will be very surprised. At the time I made the payment to the person concerned I was not aware of what I was paying for and why Molepo asked me to pay through my trust account. When I realized what services I had paid for I wrote a letter, warning Umgeni of the serious consequences, and withdrew soon after”. The Department of Water Affairs and Forestry has appointed a commission of inquiry into the incident, but – at the time of going to press – the commission has yet to begin its investigation.

Hardly had the commission been set up when the owner of a branch of a nationwide franchise was arrested and charged with allegedly bugging the telephones of a Greek shipping company. He, court records show, has a previous conviction for telephone bugging. He appeared in court and was released on bail. His trial has yet to begin.

Shortly after this appeared, and in the most high profile of all three recent cases, the governor of the South Afrian Reserve Bank admitted that the South Africa National Intelligence Agency had discovered bugs inside his institution. Speaking to the respected journal The Financial Mail in June 2001, Tito Mboweni, the Governor of the Reserve Bank broke the news that a number of illegal monitoring devices had been found in the meeting rooms of the institution. Investigations into who planted the devices are continuing. Information gleaned from them could have been invaluable to currency speculators and so the number of potential suspects is very wide.

Telephone bugging in South Africa is on the increase according to Durban Security expert Raymond Van Staden, himself a trained electro-mechanician with 20 years experience. Due to massive retrenchments in the public service after the end of Apartheid many experienced police and intelligence operatives have used their skills to enter the private sector. Adding to their number are scores of Telkom technicians who, now retired, offer their (often illegal) services on the open market. The once feared telephone tapping resources of the Apartheid era are up for sale to the highest bidder. And, any foreigners doing business in the Republic are very vulnerable. The Apartheid era government trained some of the best eavesdroppers in the world – and sent them to operate as far afield as Europe and every corner of Africa.

Van Staden for one is adamant he will not bug a telephone illegally. He makes his bread and butter out of debugging offices, any many of his former colleagues keep him in business by planting “bugs”. Debugging is very capital intensive, the tools of this trade cost a lot of money. Bugging on the other hand costs very little. A few thousand Rand – or a couple of hundred Dollars – and a bugger is fully equipped and ready to go. Competition among buggers is, as a result, cutthroat. The basic tool kit used by debugger on the other hand costs around US$70,000.The actual devices that are used to bug telephones and rooms are almost limitless.

Telephones can be modified so to act as microphones, allowing a listener to hear conversations occurring within six metres or so of the devices. Tiny transmitters can be wired onto telephone line and bugs can also be hidden in wall plugs, phones, televisions and a host of other devices. “Probe” microphone can be inserted into holes drilled in walls while “contact” microphones act like enormously powerful stethoscopes, allowing the bugger to hear conversations through walls and thick doors. Bugs can even be wired into the mains wiring of a room to transmit signals down mains electricity lines.

According to the South African Council of Investigators Head, Andy Grudko, there are probably only around six qualified, competent and properly equipped operators in the private sector who can provide specialist Technical Surveillance Counter Measures Investigations – or “debugging services”. Private detectives in South Africa are at present unregulated by government. Anyone can set up shop as a “Private Eye” and many offer their bugging services in telephone directories. South Africa may be one of the few countries in the world where a person is more likely to be bugged by the private rather than the public sector. In the United States the possession, sale and manufacture of bugging equipment is banned. In most other countries it is heavily regulated.

Telephones can legally be tapped in South Africa only if the police, the National Intelligence Agency, the Secret Service or the Defense Force are probing a “serious offence”. In addition to this, these agencies have to receive permission from a specially designated High Court judge who must satisfy himself that the bugging order is justified in terms of very strict legal guidelines. For the purposes of bugging, the definition of a “serious offence” – the SA Law Commission points out – does not even include a once-off murder, rape or armed robbery. According to the act a “serious offence” has to fall under the ambit of Schedule 1 of the Criminal Procedures Act. This encompasses murder, rape, armed robbery, high treason and a few other offences.

In addition to falling under Schedule 1 of the Act, the crime needs to have a few other qualifying characteristics before the suspects can be bugged legally. The crime needs to have been:

· Committed over a lengthy period of time, or

· Committed in an organized manner, or

· Committed by the same person on a regular basis, or

· The offence has to allegedly harm the economy of the country

The only exceptions to these rules are offences committed under the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act.

Despite these constraints on legal bugging the South African Law Commission points out that an alarming number of Private Detectives advertise telephone bugging services even when they obviously do not have the legal authority to bug a telephone. Asked in a written letter how many warrants the South African Department of Justice authorizes in a given year, the department did not respond, despite being given three weeks to answer and having acknowledged receipt of the letter.

A search of court records in Durban and Pietermaritzburg show that the state have engaged in illegal telephone tapping from time to time – most dramatically during the trial of Sifiso Nkabinde – a Natal politician accused of dozens of murders. The prosecution failed when it was revealed that police had tapped conversations between Nkabinde and his lawyers. When this information emerged, High Court Judge Jan Combrink threw the case out of court and Nkabinde walked free. Police had obtained a warrant allowing them to tape all Nkabinde’s conversations – except those conducted with his legal team. Somewhat fancifully the police argued that they had only listened to these conversations and not taped them, and had thus acted within the law.

Nkabinde testified that he had suspicions that these protected conversations were taped and deliberately spoke about an arms cache at his home. The following day police raided his Richmond house, thus proving the existence of the illegal monitoring. Combrink emphasized that a guilty verdict could never be returned in South Africa if the trial was not a fair one. Police had obtained full details of Nkabinde’s defence and destroyed his chances of a fair trial.

One of the earliest telephone tapping scandals to hit the press occurred as early as 1916 in New York City. In that year the New York Times reported that police had merrily tapped huge numbers of telephones – often for no real purpose other than their own amusement. In those early days telephones were a relatively new device and little thought had been given to their use in detecting crime. In 1928 Roy Olmstead was convicted of running a US$2m moonshine business, largely due to evidence obtained from telephone taps that were conducted without any form of judicial approval. Olmstead’s subsequent appeal to the US Supreme Court, arguing his privacy had been invaded, failed. All but one justice claimed that, as a conversation is an intangible, it cannot be protected. Somewhat of a visionary, one history of organized crime recounts how Judge Louis Brandies dissented saying: ”Whenever a telephone is tapped, the privacy of the persons at both ends of the lines is invaded. As a meansof espionage, writs of assistance and general warrants are but puny instruments of tyranny and oppression when compared to wiretapping”.

Since then, most countries have enacted anti-bugging laws. Today, American Police need the approval of a judge to tap a telephone. And to do that they need to be able to persuade the judge that they have “probable cause” to believe a crime is being committed. But despite the existence of legislation, pretty much every country has, at one time or another, bugged telephones illegally – even the often self-righteous Australians. The Australian Government – run Australian Institute of Criminology recently put out a fascinating document entitled: “Wayward Governance: Illegality and its Control in the Public Sector”. The document deals largely with the findings of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Alleged Telephone Interceptions, Report Number One by Justice David Stewart.

The report details how the Commissioner of the New South Wales Police, Sir Norman Allan CMG, had introduced completely illegal telephone taps into Australia. Allan, the report states, presided over a bugging campaign that would have put the South African Apartheid era Security Branch to shame. He had his police buy up surplus Australian Telecom vans, had fake Telecom uniforms made up and even had Telecom tool bags copied. He then sent his police out to tap the telephones of suspected criminals, their lawyers and even suspicious policemen.

Raymond Van Staden, the South African electro-mechanician with 20 years experience in the field, is adamant that while other states may have the occasional telephone tapping scandal, the incidence in South Africa is on the increase – dramatically so. Using highly sophisticated equipment Van Staden says he now sometimes finds as many bugs in one month as he used to find in a whole year.

The two main pieces of equipment used by Van Staden - and most government agencies – are the Locator Pro and the Scanlock Select Plus, both imported from the United Kingdom. However, the price of the equipment, once import duty is added, puts it out of the reach of most South African companies.

Looking just like a metal detector, the Locator Pro picks up the presence of any electronic items with diodes in them – regardless of whether they are switched on or not. Tape recorders, microphones and almost anything electronic will be detected by this device, while the Scanlock Select Plus is used to pick up any radio transmissions in a room. Because radio transmitters can be so small, small enough to be hidden in keyholes, van Staden has to have a large array of tools to look into the tiniest nook and crannies. And, although being very small, these transmitters can broadcast for up to 10km, sending one’s private conversation out on the airwaves for an eavesdropper to hear.

Van Staden warns: “Information is worth money. The theft of information – especially in South Africa at the moment is a big growth area. Businessmen, and anyone who has information that someone else wants, should be very careful in South Africa”.

Paul Kirk is a photojournalist and investigative reporter based in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa for the Mail & Guardian newspaper.

From a feature in INTERSEC

The Journal of International Security.

Vol 11 Issue 9 September 2001

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