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Telephone Bugger's Wings Clipped 15/06/2001

by Paul Kirk

The high-profile owner of a Durban electronics shop was arrested this week on suspicion of illegally tapping the telephones of a major shipping company.

Police say only three cases of illegal telephone tapping -- including this week's case -- have been prosecuted since new legislation was passed allowing for serious jail time for telephone buggers. People illegally tapping phones can be jailed for up to two years, and up to five years for disclosing information obtained from an illegal telephone tap.

But, although this crime is on the increase -- with dozens of ex-Telkom technicians and out-of-work police offering bugging services -- the law that prevents telephone tapping is so restrictive it severely hinders the investigation of the crime.

censored advertised in the Durban telephone directory that his business -- the shop in the Durban Pavilion -- supplied electronic surveillance and bugging. In effect he was advertising that he was prepared to break the law.

The Interception and Monitoring Prohibition Act places enormous obstacles in the way of government agencies that may legally monitor telecommunications lines.

Only an assistant commissioner of police, a major general of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) or a chief director of Intelligence Services may approach a judge to request permission to monitor a telecommunications line.

Permission may only be granted for crimes that are being committed over a long period of time, or if they are committed on an organised or regular basis. The only exceptions to these rules are crimes committed under the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act, or crimes that may harm the economy.

A copy of the October 1999 Law Commission report on the Act states that these conditions may be a serious defect to the law -- as a once-off murder, rape or armed robbery would not be sufficient to justify a telephone "bug".

The report reads: "A matter which is alarming in South Africa is the large number of advertisements, sometimes even in law journals, of private investigators offering to deliver services which include 'bugging'. In view of the fact that only the [police], the SA Secret Service, the SANDF and the National Intelligence Agency may be authorised to do interception and monitoring, the legality of monitoring by private investigators is questionable, especially in regard to instances of third party monitoring."

censored was one of Durban's most high-profile advertisers. His arrest followed the employment of Durban debugging expert Raymond van Staden to check the telephone lines of a shipping company.

Most telephone taps are not placed inside the home or office of a victim, instead they are connected to the street boxes to which telephone lines run. Bugs do not normally make any noise on a telephone line and as a rule cannot be detected without specialised equipment and training.

Van Staden says bugs are most commonly in the form of specially modified small tape recorders with wires attached to the telephone line. A special adaptation of the tape recorder switches the device on as soon as the telephone is lifted. The small tapes can generally record one hour of conversation.

According to police sources, the standard charge is R3 000 a week to monitor a telephone line.

After Van Staden discovered the telephone box outside his client's home had been forced open, he looked inside and saw the tell-tale signs of an illegal telephone tap. He then contacted Telkom and the police and prepared to wait for the telephone bugger to return.

To Van Staden's amazement the two alleged buggers returned only minutes later to change the tapes in their monitoring device. Once censored opened the junction box, Van Staden pounced and made a citizen's arrest. Moments later police and Telkom officials arrived.

After a detailed search the telephone "bug" was found hidden among the tangle of wires in the junction box. Members of the police technical support unit searched censored's car. censored's driver, Thinus Delport, was arrested as well.

The bug was removed for fingerprinting and a partial fingerprint was found on the small tape inside.

censored was found to be in possession of tape recorders like the one found in the telephone box.

Police also found a file in his car containing the business cards of most of Durban's large security companies -- suggesting that censored's client base may have been significant.

censored appeared in court and was granted R2 000 bail on Tuesday.

Van Staden said he suspected that industrial espionage may have been the motive for the bugging.

Andy Grudko, of the South African Council of Investigators, said although telephone bugging was on the increase, it was more widespread before the new Act was passed.

He said the council was attempting to weed out illegal telephone tappers from the industry.

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