Chapter 11 The Fire and the Water
One last trip, I promised myself. That’s all it should take anyway. But this time, for the very first time, I’d have to fly because even just one more ferry and train journey to London might be one too much for British intelligence to ignore. My grandfather had been in the IRA, after all, a Brigadier even. And they would probably know that because all our grandfathers were. But if they stopped me this time, my baggage would clearly show that I had now clearly moved to the side of the good and the decent.
The turning of the coat came from a phone call from the Murder Squad wanting to know if I had the capability to provide a very discreet sweep for bugs and wiretaps of the entire office of Ireland’s largest stockbroking firm. The surveillance paranoia had infected all the way to the very top of the Irish business community, to the most respectable and ancient firms, and in a very small way my fault. So it only seemed fair that I should do my best to calm their fears. Just as long as the price was right.
A couple of weeks later I was sitting in the office of the managing director of the stockbroking firm who wanted an entire floor swept for bugs, including the trading floor and executive offices, and around two hundred recently-installed phone lines.
We agreed on a price of four thousand pounds for half a day’s work, even before I’d really given any thought to what work I’d do or how I’d do it. But I needed him to believe that I had done this so often I had no need to even think about a price. In truth, I’d never done this kind of work before, I didn’t have any equipment for the job, and had no idea where to start. So I started with Shea.
The first time I met Shea he was on his hands and knees, working as a linesman for Telecom Eireann, the national telephone company, and installing phones in the new office I’d just rented from the security guard peddler and still apparently unaware of my betrayal.
I thought he might be a good source of insight into how challenging it would be to test two hundred telephone lines for wiretaps, and the font of knowledge he unleashed at that simple question on that day flowed without pause for years after. And I had no idea that that first innocent conversation would turn me into the Man from Intrepid. Or both of us, really. The Men from Intrepid.
Shea always looked as torn and battered as I felt. The only thing wilder than his curly unkempt hair and beard were his wide bloodshot eyes. His fingers were stained brown and black from a lifetime of rolling and smoking his own, and the box of tobacco that seemed to never leave his side reminded me often of granddad.
He asked who the client was, he might know someone familiar with the building, someone who ran that district. “The office on the corner of Dawson Street, by Trinity?” he asked. “That’s the one” I said. “Sure feck, I installed their phone system just a year ago, it was a real mess.”
He offered to take care of scanning all the phone lines, confident that if there was any kind of alteration or interference, either with the appearance or with the signal, he’d know it. He never forgot his children. “You’ll have to take care of the bugs though, I don’t have anything for that.”
It wasn’t a coincidence, it couldn’t have been. It had to be fate, those invisible hands again, one pushing and the other opening, pointing, beckoning. Shea offered to join me on my first job. “No one will be suspicious of a Telecom Eireann jacket and a bag of tools,” he said.
What would blow my cover though is if I was unable to complete the other part of the assignment, to sweep every corner of the building, every corner of every office, every electrical device, for the presence of a bug or some other kind of listening device. And always at the back of my mind that this might be a test, either a first test from the police or an effort to expose me as a fraud.
I still had the large collection of brochures I’d collected at a police surveillance exhibition in England a year earlier, and I remembered there were a handful of vendors at that show offering all kinds of counter-surveillance devices and gadgetry. The cheapest and most popular, especially among police and private detectives, was called Scanlock, and would probably have been a perfect fit for me except that the sellers were very picky about who they sold it to and it might take months before I’d earn their trust.
The most expensive device was the FG Mason Countersurveillance Receiver and cost anywhere from twenty thousand pounds to more than eighty thousand. It was good enough to be the favorite of US and other intelligence services but much too expensive for me. At least for now.
Then I remembered the pretty but bony English woman I met at the same exhibition. She worked for a British manufacturer of NATO-certified counter surveillance equipment, and while twice the price of the Scanlock, still within my budget. If the stockbroker went through with our arrangement, I’d have most of the machine paid off on the very first job.
Most of all, the equipment looked the part, all dials and lights and switches, and I would certainly look proficient and professional using it. It was called the TSR7, a two-part counter-surveillance command and control center housed in a massive and heavy black briefcase.
The non-detachable part of the system that took up one half of the case was a telephone analyzer, and when connected to a telephone line was able to identify all kinds of surveillance devices, including the more sophisticated ones. The same system could be connected to the mains wiring of the building and detect anything on the line that was either interrupting the flow of electricity or taking from it.
The only thing that it couldn’t really detect, she warned me, was the new generation of bugs and wiretaps that could immediately switch themselves off if they detected a detector in their presence. Bugs that could tell when they were being hunted and take evasive action, a kind of counter counter intelligence. The only solution for those, she said, was hard work or sheer luck.
The other half of the massive case was called the Tracer, and it worked by simply broadcasting a high frequency tone through each room, expecting that if there was an active listening and transmitting device in the room, that device would pick up and re-transmit that tone back to the Tracer. Which would then whine in alarm as it got ever closer to the source. Come out come out wherever you are.
All the operator had to do was walk around the room and carefully wand every single corner, wall, ceiling, piece of furniture, and electronics and hope for the best. And all I would need in order to own this device was five thousand pounds.
Two weeks later I met the boney Brit in London where she gave me a quick walkthrough of the machine, and concluding with a warning of the TSR7’s most dangerous capability. I’d already read in the brochure how the device was capable of shooting thousands of volts of electricity down any phone line or electrical wiring, enough to destroy any listening device attached to the line, and great for places you suspected a wiretap existed but couldn’t access it. Just the kind of place a good bugger would hide it.
The lines need to be isolated, she warned. Completely. If there’a a phone or a fax or a telex or a technician connected to the line or any of the wiring at the time of the electrical surge, they would be unlikely to survive the experience.
I assured her that I understood the gravity of the feature and consequences, without telling her how much I was looking forward to testing that particular feature. And in exchange for $5,000 plus taxes the case was mine and all I had to do was get it safely back to Ireland.
Shea instantly scoffed at the machine, and that wasn’t unexpected. But he did remind me of what I’d already considered, that inside the guts of this heavy piece of NATO approved counter-surveillance system might be nothing more than the wiring of a cheap toy.
I started by testing it on what few bugs and transmitters I still had left and it passed all the tests, simple as they were. And with that fragile vote of confidence, a couple of weeks later Shea and I spent a frosty Sunday morning wandering the empty offices of the stockbroking firm in search of spies. After three hours of wandering and time wasting, we agreed it was likely the offices and phones were clean and uncorrupted, and we could give the stockbroker the all clear signal. In the form of an invoice.
I had hoped that if my bug detection was to become a viable business it would need ongoing contracts that involved regular scans and sweeps, at least every few months. Bugging scandals were so commonplace, many executives had resorted to carrying pocket-sized detectors into meetings that would vibrate in their pocket if a transmitter were detected.
Even though I never heard from the stockbroker again, the squad kept sending me new clients. I swept the offices of Waterford Crystal, of Aer Lingus, our national airline, a meat baron, the offices and homes of some prominent entrepreneurs, and a handful of lesser-known politicians. But the work was too sporadic to be relied on, Orla was getting restless, and it still didn’t make me feel like a serious security expert. Within a year I sold my NATO case to the privacy investigator for just a little less than I paid for it.
Then everything changed. Again. Another scandal. Someone had both the opportunity and the skills to record the cellphone conversation of two Government ministers as they disparaged a local reporter. Except that it didn’t take much skill at all, and I spent many bored nights with a scanner next to my ear and listening into the sometimes addictively weird phone conversations of passing motorists and often from many miles away.
Whoever recorded these particular phone calls also decided to share them, which ignited another round of questions and paranoia and at every new disclosure, more scandal. The most asked question was how come these Ministers were not using a secure phone line or device.
That ignited a second scandal, that Irish government ministers did indeed have access to a secure phone system. It was called the Privacy Set Number 8, first developed in 1962 and long past its prime. And worse than that, designed by British intelligence.
The fact that all Irish Ministers might have had access to and even used such an ancient device, designed and sold by the British government and British Intelligence, and which only provided a very dangerous false sense of security, spurred calls for a need to look at a more modern and appropriate alternative.
Which is where I stepped in. Again. Hand in hand with Shea. We found out that the reason the Privacy Set #8 was so dangerous was because defeating it required no technical skills or resources whatsoever. The security was based solely on what was called single band frequency inversion and not much changed since it was first used by Winston Churchill. It was like taking the human voice and turning upside down at one end, then reversing the process at the other.
For a phone tapper to eavesdrop on the conversation, all that was required was to record the conversation, the upside down one, and turn it right side up again. A device costing fifty pounds or less would suffice. But even that wasn’t necessary because good spooks could train their ear to decipher a frequency-inverted conversation in real time and without any technical assistance or recording.
Shea arranged a meeting with one of his contacts at the division of the telephone company assigned the task of finding a replacement for old Number 8. Still obviously stinging from the revelations about their security oversight, they seemed more than delighted to allow us, at our cost and risk, to propose an alternative. As long as it’s cheap, they said. And simple enough for even a government Minister to use.
We’d do our best, we promised, and while Shea went away to think about how we might approach the new challenge, I turned back, once again, to the pile of brochures I’d collected from the spooks and spies at Scarborough. And once again, it didn’t fail.
I came across a brochure that immediately stood out from all the rest because half way down its list of possible applications was telephone privacy. It was called the FX 204, a tiny and very affordable chipset manufactured by a small company in Liverpool. It claimed to be capable of inverting speech not once or in one place, but in 32 places, and all based on a rolling code that would allow the users to select what combination of inversions could be used for that call.
Would it work, I asked Shea, could this be the answer, and his eyes lit up. Very grudgingly though, and I suppose because I had come up with a solution before he did. I ordered two, Shea took them home, and less than a month later we had a fully working telephone security system that while not especially secure, was still far more capable of protecting phone calls than Privacy Set Numbers 8, 9 or 10. It would be cheap, and even an Irish Government Minister could learn how to use it.
We called it PhoneCode, and Shea arranged for another meeting with the phone company to show them how quickly we had come up with something far superior than anything they’d seen or used before. Something that would help them save face, redeem them before the scandal got any worse. Something that might also be the birth of the first Irish telephone security company.
They said no, quick and hard, because the panic had passed and no one wanted to talk about telephone privacy anymore. Even though only a month had passed.
In spite of the disappointment, we didn’t feel at all defeated. In just a matter of weeks we’d developed our first telephone security system, and surely there’d be lots of other customers for it. I persuaded the manufacturer of the chipset to allow me some table space at an encryption conference in London a month later to see if I could snare any British customers. Maybe even the British Government. I relished the irony.
So I stood there, alone, for two days, in the hotel ballroom, with my non-working PhoneCode mockup on a fold-up table covered in a stained white cloth and a sign with a massive and obvious misspelling. The misspelling was pointed out by the military intelligence officer who was dressed like an accountant and who would later ask me to meet and discuss a matter about a phone.