Wednesday, April 19, 2006

When all else fails, police can turn to telephone taps

You can learn a lot about people by tapping their telephones, but police use that tool only after other methods have failed.

Police prefer to cozy up to drug dealers with undercover detectives and informants, buy some drugs and then swoop down with a warrant and grab whatever other evidence they can find.

Telephone taps take a lot more work, police and prosecutors said. Federal and state laws require police to justify the need to tap a phone, and convince a judge that the tap will produce evidence of a crime.

Federal phone tap law (Title 18 USC 2518) also requires police to explain what other means they’ve tried and why other methods won’t work.

“When we intercept a citizen’s phone . . . we’re under an obligation to really do our homework, really make sure that intercept is proper,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Irish said.

To get permission for the phone taps in Operation Beachhead, state police filed lengthy affidavits outlining their suspicions regarding four men, and listing all known associates with whom they might talk. In addition to relying on surveillance and information from informants, police look at previous call records for the target telephone, to predict who might turn up on tape.

“When you do a federal wiretap, you are obligated to put in any possible expected interceptee (in the affidavit),” Irish said, adding later, “You’re putting as much information as you can to show why there’s probable cause to intercept this phone.

“We’re required to identify people . . . whom we may just have a hunch on,” Irish said.

To gather those records, police get authorization from a judge for a “pen register,” a device that records all incoming and outgoing phone calls from a particular phone line. Once installed, police can link up with the telephone company operating the line in question, and download the information over the Internet, state trooper Andrew Annicelli testified.

The information includes names and addresses associated with the numbers of any incoming and outgoing calls, and the time and duration of each call, he said. Police use additional software to run queries, and sort and print out information on who is communicating with the target phone and how often.

Police compare the list of callers and calls to their intelligence files. Anyone with a criminal record or suspected involvement can become an “expected interceptee.”

Police identified 61 “expected interceptees” in their first Operation Beachhead telephone tap, which began Feb. 22, 2001. Police tapped three phones: Michael Gingras’ cellular phone, Jim Grisson’s home phone, and Michael Dignam’s home phone.

The first warrant was good for a month, but police got it extended twice, and added a cellular phone used by Alfred Nickerson in the third warrant, issued April 27, 2001.

Once installed, the phone taps began to drive the investigation, state police Sgt. Robert Quinn testified during Nelson Santana’s trial.

“We had a surveillance team that was in place that was a reactionary team,” Quinn testified. “They were there daily, prepared to move in a certain location as directed by somebody working in the wire room.”

Police don’t like to talk about where the “wire room” is located, but state police Sgt. Michael Hambrook described how it works in testimony during Santana’s trial.

The room holds 12 computers linked in a local area network with a package of software and equipment called “Voice Box,” made by JSI Telecom, a company that specializes in wiretap gear. The system can handle numerous wiretaps at once, Hambrook said.

Tapping into a home telephone involves putting a device on the actual phone line somewhere between the house and a central switching office, Hambrook said. Cellular phone signals are intercepted by installing a computer card in the phone company’s switching equipment, he testified. Either device diverts the signal from the target phone, so that in addition to traveling its usual route through the phone company’s network, it also is routed to the wire room.

“His calls will be our calls. We program that card to send those calls, send that data, divert it to our collection equipment,” Hambrook said.

Police receive the audio signals from all incoming and outgoing calls. In addition to recording conversations, the system records the date and time of each call.

The system can record the number of any outgoing call, because it records the tones when a number is dialed. Numbers of incoming calls are recorded only if the tapped phone has caller identification, however, Hambrook said.

“So if he doesn’t get it (the number), you won’t get it. But if he does, we will,” he said.

The audio signal from any phone conversation goes directly into one of the 12 computers, where it’s stored temporarily on the hard drive, then immediately and automatically transferred to magneto-optical disks - two for each call, so there’s a backup copy - when the call is completed.

“It happens within seconds of the hang-up,” Hambrook said.

The system’s software assigns a case number for each target phone, and then numbers each intercepted call chronologically, Hambrook said.

Each call also is recorded with a digital header and trailer, with the digital recording sandwiched in between, Hambrook said. In addition to allowing police to access a specific call, the header and trailer contain algorithmic code developed by and known only to JSI Telecom, he said. Police can play back a call, but the digital recording can’t be edited or altered in any way without knowing that code, Hambrook said.

“If someone had it in their mind to actually tamper with that call, and manipulate it in some way, add a word . . . delete the call, any of that, they would actually have to get into our wiring, which is alarmed,” he said.

They would then have to hack into the software, know the case number and call number in question, load audio editing software, break the JSI Telecom code, edit or delete the call, then “put it back so that its exact bit length matches what was there before, get their software out and get out of the room without us seeing that,” Hambrook testified.

“It’s not impossible, but it’s close to impossible,” he said.

Police have officers monitoring the equipment, to listen to any calls that come in. They also can copy the recorded calls onto CDs, so they can later be played back during a person’s trial.

Combined with surveillance, the recorded calls can provide damning evidence. Still, Hambrook agreed it’s not the best way to make a bust.

“If we can get the target or gather evidence enough to prosecute the target of the investigation any other way, then we’re required to do that by law,” Hambrook said. “And to be honest with you, it’s a lot easier if we do that, because a wiretap is a lot of work, it’s quite costly and it’s a big job.”

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