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Tripped Out

When Barbara Simons accepted her Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award at this year's Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference in Austin, she made an admittedly unorthodox move: She nominated next year's winner. EFF gives out Pioneer Awards to people who have made significant contributions to our increasingly computer-mediated existence with innovations in hardware, software or wetware. And although Simons, who founded and currently chairs the U.S. Public Policy Committee of the Association of Computing Machinery (USACM), has in the past made inroads in machinery and programming, she won this year's award for, to paraphrase Rudy Rucker, applications of the biocybernetic software of her mind.

Simons has testified on the matter of medical-records privacy, reminding our elected officials that we essentially have no such thing. She lobbied hard against the Clipper initiative, which would have handed the authorities a key to all private electronic communications. She has argued for a reasonable policy on copyright, one that wouldn't criminalize the not-for-profit copying of information. In all her public speaking, she has heightened awareness of where our digital rights begin and where they're likely to be curtailed if we don't pay attention. To that end, Simons concluded her acceptance speech by nominating "someone who is to friendship what fatal attraction is to love": Linda Tripp.

"I think Linda Tripp actually did us a service," Simons says from her office in Palo Alto, "because people have said, 'Oh my God, people can actually do this!' Privacy is one of those issues people take for granted, and they don't think much about it until something actually happens. Or they think, 'Sure, of course I have it where I need it,'" an attitude known among privacy advocates as the "nothing to hide" clause. "But what Linda Tripp did is disturbing in light of what we know about dictatorships in which people spied on other people. In East Germany, you didn't know whether you could trust your friends. I don't believe that's the kind of society we want in this country."

That said, Tripp could have done a better job. Not in her social engineering; she did, after all, gain her victim's trust. And not in her wiretapping; she got enough on Lewinsky to satisfy both literary agent and special prosecutor. But she could have enhanced her public service: There are other means by which she could have eavesdropped, many of them obscure. In the process, she could have informed the public about more technologically insidious privacy violations.

Tripp could, for example, have monitored Lewinsky's conversations with other people by bouncing a low-power laser off one of her Watergate windows, feeding the signal back through a telescope and then to an audio amplifier, revealing all conversation in the room. But she'd have to have been highly placed to do so, according to Mike Kalina, manager of the Counter Spy Shop in Beverly Hills, a division of CCS International, which provides surveillance equipment to both law enforcement and people on the street. ("But not the same things to both," Kalina advises. "Not everyone is privy to what we have.") The laser-beam listening device "is highly restricted equipment," he says. "Not even local law enforcement can purchase it. Inquiries for stuff like that have to be made on letterhead by the Department of Justice."

Nevertheless, Tripp has some fairly influential friends near, if not technically in, the government, and the odds for a wiretapping order these days are pretty good: According to a report available from the Office of U.S. Courts (Title 18 USC), of the 1,150 requests for wiretapping orders made to the Justice Department in 1997, only one was denied, so how hard can it be to get permission for electronic eavesdropping? All Tripp would've needed was some technological savvy to pitch the beam at a precise 90-degree angle. And all Lewinsky would have needed was a good set of blinds. (Which might be a wise idea: According to Jean Guisnel's book Cyberwars, espionage agents can now capture electromagnetic signals off computer screens from hundreds of feet away.)

Tripp might also have tried to gain access to a cellular interception device, which CCS manufactures and Counter Spy sells to federal law enforcement. It's basically a better-than-average scanner that homes in on cellular-phone conversations at 900 megahertz - a higher frequency than the FCC allows for scanners available to commoners. Lewinsky could have prevented such an invasion by making her calls with a digital phone, and she could make her conversations more secure by equipping her phone with strong digital encryption. (In fact, she might think about devoting her future political career to issues of privacy, to which cryptography is essential. Just an idea.)

"Are you aware," Kalina scolds me after a few too many questions, "that eavesdropping, bugging and any kind of wiretapping is illegal?"

"But Linda Tripp got away with it," I remind him.

"Well, if Maryland is like California, it's a two-party consent state. That woman should go to jail for seven years." (Actually, according to Maryland's Wiretap and Electronic Surveillance Act of 1977, she could go to jail for five years, but probably won't, since ignorance of the law is a fair defense in Maryland.) Anyway, I explain, my point is not to give people ideas about spying, but to make them aware of the various ways in which they can be spied upon.

"Well, if you're breaking the law," he says, "I guess you should be concerned about that. But if you're not, who cares?"

Yeah, Mike. Tell that to Monica.


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