#15 | August 28 - September 10, 1997  smlogo.gif

Feature Story

In This Issue
Feature Story


Someone's Listening

by Matt Taibbi

One of the great advantages to moving to Russia from the West is that we're able to experience here all kinds of social oddities that we we'd never tolerate in our own safe, dependable countries. A great example, probably the best example, is the whole issue of tapped phones. Virtually every foreigner who's ever visited Russia spends his first week here walking around with a gleeful and slightly guilty smile on his face, like a teenager who's just experienced his first auto-induced orgasm. The smile means: I'm getting off on this. This place is twisted and sick, and I'm getting off on it. And if he opens his mouth to let his secret out, he's likely to do so by saying: "I think my phone is tapped! I heard a click!"

Foreigners love to talk about how they think their phones are tapped. They like the idea that some one considers them important enough to be worth of listening to. In the West, you either have to be a mafia Don or a Vice-President to have a phone tap. Here all you need is a liberal-arts degree, a pack of condoms, and a baseball hat. As long as someone's listening, you can safely conclude that not everyone thinks you're a loser. For that kind of honor, you don't mind having your privacy invaded. After all, you want privacy, you can always go home.

During the communist era, it was pretty much a given that a foreigner's phone was always tapped. Then, after 1991, the phone-tapping issue died down for a while. Now, thanks to a series of lurid news stories involving tapped phone conversations, the issue is back. We've got those naughty onanist smiles on again as we pick up the phone to call our friends: "Did you hear, Boris Nemtsov's phone was tapped! Hey, did you just hear a click?"

We've got good news for all you people who get off on the idea that your phone might be tapped: It probably is. If you occupy any position where you might have access to information that might later influence a major business deal, experts agree that you're probably being monitored. You can join Nemtsov, Anatoly Chubais, Sergei Lisofsky, and a number of others in an exclusive club-the Bugged-fest Club.

There's nothing reporters love more than catching politicians on tape using bad language, and a little over two weeks ago, the hacks at Novaya Gazeta caught a rich haul. A certain "someone" dropped a package off at their offices containing a cassette tape of Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov and creepy ORT Reklama thug/Anatoly Chubais crony Sergei Lisofsky casually debating over the phone how best to subvert a Presidential decree on income declaration that Nemtsov himself had authored. The best part was catching Nemtsov, who sounds pretty distinguished in public, sounding off like a longshoreman on the phone:

Nemtsov: Vy menya, blyad', postavlaete na rovnom meste!
Lisofsky: No Borya, mog by tvoi chelovek khot' pozvonit'.
Nemtsov: Zvonyat po dvatsat' ras. A tam tvoi Grigoriev na khui vsekh posylaet!

Scarcely did the public have time to digest the reality of a Deputy Prime Minister barking in "nine-story" bandit slang than a veritable wave of speculative articles appeared in Russian newspapers asking the question: who was bugging Nemtsov, and how many phones are tapped these days? Fueling the talk was the fact that the Nemtsov piece was the second high-profile news sensation revolving around tapped phone conversations to hit the newsstands in the last year: in November 1996, Moskovsky Komsomolets pest Alexander Khinshtein published his bombshell "Golosui Ili..." article, in which Anatoly Chubais was caught in a bugged conversation with Viktor Ilyushin discussing ways in which they might best suppress criminal investigations (again involving the abovementioned Lisofsky, incidentally).

Novaya Gazeta, which took a lot of criticism following the publication of the Nemtsov piece for its "tacit" participation in the invasion of Nemtsov's privacy, went ahead in its next issue to raise the issue of phone tapping in general. In a page 3 piece they published the results of a poll of Duma deputies, asking each and every member of parliament 3 questions: a) Do you think your phone is tapped; b) If yes, who do you think is doing it, and c) Do you care?

The results were interesting. In response to the first question, every single respondent answered in the affirmative. More than half, according to reporter Olga Migacheva, added the word konechno, "Of course!" But if Russia's elected representatives were all in agreement that they were being listened to, they were less sure about who was doing it. Many listed opposing political factions as the likely culprits, some fingered foreign spies, and a surprisingly small number pointed to the FSB. However, and most surprisingly, nearly all of them said that the organ most likely to be bugging them was FAPSI-the Federal Agency of Governmental Media, an organ subordinate to the government administration.

Curiously, FAPSI is the organ that is supposed to, by law, regulate not only phone-tapping, but ownership and use of any machine other than a telephone than can be connected to a telephone line. By a law passed in 1995 called the "Federal Law on Operations of Investigative Bodies," not only are phone-tapping apparati supposed to be regulated, but also such ordinary devices as fax machines. By law, every single fax machine in Russia is supposed to be registered with FAPSI. Most of us can therefore add an unregistered fax machine to the list of reasons we can be thrown out of the country, should that ever become necessary to anyone.

The Novaya Gazeta staff was curious as to why so many deputies would suspect FAPSI, a body not traditionally associated with intelligence surveillance, of tapping their phones. According to the paper, one "prominent" deputy said that he came to that conclusion after learning that his political opponents were receiving printed transcripts of his telephone and office conversations within one day after they occurred.

The deputy said he was so outraged he called a team of FAPSI debuggers into his office to have them check for phone and open-air bugs (called "zhuchki," or beetles, in Russian). FAPSI came and swept the office once, then twice, and found nothing both times. The deputy learned that the transcripts were continuing to be delivered. "So I reasoned that it was either their own incompetence, or FAPSI's own bugging, that was responsible," the deputy concluded.

Whoever the culprit, most government officials now take it for granted that their phones are bugged. In response to the last question of the Novaya Gazeta survey, most deputies said they were indifferent to bugging-"like to the weather," as one put it.

If Duma deputies, whose political influence is constantly waning, feel certain that they are being bugged, what about Russia's bankers and businessmen, who have much more that is concrete to gain and lose from their everyday work activities? Most private security experts agree that it's time for all businessmen-Russian and foreign-to begin assuming that their phones and/or offices are tapped. What's more, most of them agree that it is not FAPSI or the Federal Security Services that are most likely to do the tapping, but private businessmen who hire free-lance tappers to spy on their competitors. "This sort of thing is already in place and a fact of life," said Anatoly Ilyin of Wackenhut Security. "The only thing it depends on is the level of commercial interest a person's position holds for other people. If there is something worth listening to, he will be listened to-and this is irrespective of a person's citizenship."

"It exists, and it is something our clients are certainly concerned about," said Richard Prior of Kroll Associates. "There is an element of competing business interests wan-ting to know what their competitors are doing." Bankers, brokers, real estate dealers, and executives in large corporations are among the people who should expect that their phones are tapped, said Ilyin. "The emphasis is on learning information-say, the investment strategy, or the targeted properties, of a certain firm- that other companies can profit from by knowing."

But it's not just bureaucracies and businesses that are getting into the tapping business. According to the newspaper Sovershenno Sekretno, the Koptevskaya gruppirovka has in recent times replaced the Solntsevo gang as Moscow's most feared mafia group in large part because of its intelligence capabilities; its leadership is made up largely of Afghan veterans with experience in military intelligence. Last month's issue asserted that the Koptevskaya gang (incidentally, the same gang that became famous this past winter for hiring Moscow city police officers as security guards) helped gain control of the Sheremtyevo airport region by assassinating the head of a rival gang, whose whereabouts were determined through a tapped phone conversation.

Igor Kolaskov of the Regional Directorate for the Fight Against Organized Crime (RUOP) said that use of phone and room-bugging technology has become widespread among criminal gangs primarily because it is so easy to purchase the technology here.

"You can buy the services everywhere," he said. "The registered security firms will all deny that they do it, but a great many of them have access to the technology and will bug anyone you like."

Kolaskov said that the practice is so widespread that buggers have been forced to lower prices significantly lately due to a rise in competition.

"It now costs about $20 per square meter to bug a room," he said. "It used to be more."

Part of the problem in combating phone-tapping, Kolaskov said, is that the tappers are often KGB veterans whose knowledge of the technology exceeds that of law-enforcement organs.

"You have a situation where there has been a mass exodus of the best surveillance professionals from the security organs into private security services," he said. "And they know everything, these guys."

Are foreigners being bugged? Absolutely, said Kolaskov.

"Nationality doesn't play a role in who gets bugged," he said. "If there's money to be made, a foreigner is just as likely to be bugged as anyone else. He may even be bugged by more than one person."

How can one tell he's being bugged? According to the Novaya Gazeta article, there are a few telltale signs, all of which, given the wide range of unexpected technical glitches in the Russian phone system, are bound to increase the paranoia level of the average eXpat. The warning signs are: sudden increases and decreases in phone volume, a sudden break in the phone line (meaning the tape has ended), and voices breaking into the line suddenly, only to disappear immediately.

All of these things, of course, could easily happen for innocent reasons. But do we want them to be innocent? Many foreigners, security experts say, are likely to be glad that their phones are bugged.

"It adds romance to their lives," said David Kursurov, a private detective and security consultant for Gerat security. "Foreigners want to be bugged." "Yes, I agree, there are many people who like the idea that their phones might be bugged," laughed Prior.

Is phone tapping, even if it exists, really no more of an annoyance than the weather? Unless you're a deputy prime minister with a political career to think about, or a gang leader who has to worry about being hit, the only real danger to phone tapping is the same danger most businessmen take for granted anyway-that anything they say might reach the wrong ears, that their plans might become public before they have time to pull them off, or that their competitors might be getting a leg up on them. In this country, not only are all people (i.e your partners, employees, secretaries, drivers) a potential security problem, but all phone lines as well. In a city where paranoia and stress are, for a population of largely cynical, thrill-seeking foreigners, part of the charm, yet another reason to be vigilant and secretive probably detracts less than it adds.

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