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The embarrassing embassy-top antennae

COMMENT PRINT ARTICLE
PHOTO: kaadrid videost: Erik Prozes
PHOTO: kaadrid videost: Erik Prozes

When granting state secret licence, Estonian authorities caution: better not send sensitive data via mobile phone.

Especially so in Tallinn Old Town, hosting the Russian Embassy. The Russians can intercept mobile communication. While keeping a secret eye on Internet exchange as well.

The Russian Embassy is located at an excellent spot, strategically: in the Old Town, between Pikk and Lai Streets. As the crow flies, Estonian Ministry of the Interior is within mere 250 metres, the same distance to Prime Minister’s working premises in the Stenbock House.

Dozens of times had I walked past the four dignified stone buildings of the Embassy, sporting an inner courtyard. Never for once had I taken an interest towards the devices on their roof top.

I did take an interest towards the roofs, however, recently happening upon web photos of naval container sized objects on top of several US embassies. In Stockholm, Mexico City, Warsaw, Lagos ...

The wave of photographing embassy roofs was sparked last year, after the German journal Der Spiegel presented such an object. The said cube is located in the very heart of Berlin, on the roof of the US embassy at the Brandenburg Gate – used by the American secret service NSA. Half the world got anxious as the Germans uncovered the Americans eavesdropping on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone.

The NSA special wire-tapping unit Special Collection Service (aka Mission Impossible) is said to be active in 80 locations over the world. 19 of these are in Europe.

In me, the photos birthed the question: is anything of the sort happening in Estonia? Immediately, my thoughts were directed towards the Russian Embassy, as the Russians ought to be those most interested in spying out Estonia’s secrets. A NATO state, you know. And, in snooping, Russians should be no worse than Americans.

While visiting Estonian Internal Security Service, for instance, one is asked to leave one’s mobile phone with the guard downstairs.

Before Estonia’s regained independence, Russian Embassy building was used by the KGB, after that interior ministry agencies. As the legends go, from these times the house is richly equipped with interception equipment.

For Estonian police, to wiretap is not difficult – al local communications operators had to acquire devices compliable to that. As courts grant permission, the recording devices go to work.

Different with foreign missions. Unauthorised wire-tapping of foreign communications is banned almost the world over.

I approached an acquaintance of mine, interested in spy games. His talk was brief. On the roof of the Russian Embassy, lots of antennae and satellite dishes have been seen, I was told; probably, some still remain. It seemed best to go have a look.

For that, Postimees rented a state-of-the-art flying machine. A drone.

In Old Town, eyes of tourists filled with awe and wonder as the metal bug, lights blinking, powered by several propellers, and carrying a video camera, buzzed promptly up above the roofs, from Hobusepea and Pikk St. corner.

As revealed by the video images issued by the drone, no big cubes (as mentioned before, regarding the photos in Internet) on the Russian Embassy roof. However, a mysterious white box sits over a inner courtyard roof-window (good to watch Internet traffic?) and the roof does feature some antennae. At first glance, these look the usual kind; still, as you will be reading below, they’re also good for other purposes.

We were troubled by the fact that, all of a sudden, the drone did not want to obey our commands anymore. At the beginning, we guessed it must have been the wind; even so, soon the video image coming from the machine started to «sizzle» and stall. The pilot of the thing said some signal is interfering with control.

At the time of our arrival, no cars were seen on Pikk Street. Now, we were being passed by several blue CD-number-plated (as used by diplomatic corps – edit) Toyotas. The brand driven by Russian Embassy staff.

We were approached by a gray-mantled and grey-capped comrade. Never bothering to introduce himself, the man asked in pure Russian what we were filming.

«The roof,» I replied.

«But why?»

«Just interested.»

«Have a permit?»

No propusk needed, however, when living in a free country. Anybody may photograph a house in the street. Especially so in the Old Town, known as a tourist magnet. When it comes to flying drones – no rules in Estonia.

And: never did we usurp anybody’s privacy. While flying above the house, the drone stayed at a greater distance from the roof than we, from the embassy building, standing on the street.

The Russians got nervous. As Erik Prozes, the Postimees’ video and pictures chief, was filming the embassy sign attached to the house carrying Russia’s white, blue and red, the guard spoke up via the door lock megaphone: «Halloo, photographer! Have a permit to shoot pictures?»

Mr Prozes never answered. The guard continued, agitated: «What? You deaf, eh?»

Afterwards, as we were shooting a video clip near the house, a police car arrived – promptly leaving, as no breach of public order was happening.

We, however, proceeded towards the US embassy. Taught by the Pikk Street lessons: don’t stand in front of embassy. After the terror attacks of 13 years ago, the Americans are very sensitive, closing a part of Kentmanni St for car traffic. Who knows the trouble a flying drone may bring?!

Thus, we launched the aircraft from a bit farther off from the building. No big cube did we find up there. Still, a smaller box was present. On a low-lying structure in the inner courtyard, a giant satellite disc is installed. The kind we usually see with TV stations.

Even here, the drone-master complained of control problems. The video image wasn’t the best, being somewhat disturbed ...

While shooting a new video clip, two security guards came up. Announcing that filming wasn’t allowed – this, they claimed, was in some protocol. Again proving the sensitivity of superpower embassies.

The third trip took us to Mustamäe. In a techno park there, professor emeritus Andres Taklaja is in action, a research fellow at radio and communications technology institute at Tallinn University of Technology. During the former regime, he studied lasers for the USSR military industry. Now, teamed up with Priit Kinks, he manages a company called Rantelon, designing and producing radio frequency electronic devices.

The firm’s most famous produce is jammers used at NATO missions, interfering with terrorist communications for setting off explosives from far away.

Mr Taklaja and Mr Kinks smirked, hearing of the drone adventure. Regarding the antennae on Pikk St, with horizontal branches, they think these are ordinary TV antennae, probably.

The antenna with branches directed downwards, as a cone, can be used for dispatcher communication between various units of the embassy; perhaps, it could also be used to wire-tap mobile phones. Indeed, antennae can be used both ways: either to send a signal, or receive it.

The men were amused at my naiveté, thinking that spying activities are betrayed by large and complicated antennae. As also written by Der Spiegel, the NSA eavesdropping units feature no forest of antennae; rather, they work on embassy roofs or rooms with opaque windows, leaving an innocent impression. The devices are located behind covered windows.

Mr Kinks reached into his drawer, pulling out a €10 stick, a little larger than a memory stick, able to monitor the entire radio spectrum. These can be bought in shops. To eavesdrop mobile communication, more specific technology and software is needed, but even that isn’t anything out of the ordinary.

«Today, eavesdropping mobile communication is affordable and nothing special,» said Mr Taklaja. «3G and 4G network signals haven’t yet been cracked, but 2G has.»

Herein lies the key to intercept the modern  3G and 4G networks: all it takes is to interfere their work, whereat the mobile phone is automatically switched to the simpler G2 network. The same logic as when people, with a blackout on a dark winter night, light the candle.

Today, the devices needed to wire-tap ate small and need not be located in the embassy buildings at all. And, in reality, the snooping may be happening in another country altogether, as in these modern times signals can be easily forwarded.

What now becomes important is encrypting the signal. Even so, encrypted means of communication are few, they are expensive and often uncomfortably complex to use. Therefore, Ms Merkel the Chancellor also opted to use an ordinary mobile phone.

The drone signal stalling near embassy buildings may have been cause by interference devices in the embassies (these, the Rantelon guys know thru and thru); however, that should have been triggered automatically. Therefore, it seems more logical that the signal needed to control the drone was hampered by some totally legal device. «In Tallinn, there’s an incredible amount of all kinds of devices,» said Mr Kinks. «Near the TV tower, a drone may actually drop down!»

As to the giant disc at the US embassy, they probably use it for satellite communication. Probably, the embassy isn’t trusting the usual communications channels to send sensitive data, as, passing through other countries, the intelligence there could employ a bug. Lion’s share of Estonian Internet traffic happens by cable, passing through the Baltic Sea. Nobody knows who has attached nasty stuff to said cables.

As assured by Estonian Technical Surveillance Authority, both Russian and US embassies possess officially obtained frequency permits. Estonian powers haven’t detected misuse of these.

Spying and snooping may indeed feel like a Stirlitz-series and Bond-movies thing; even so, as proven by the capture of Herman Simm and Aleksei Dressen, and the multi-purpose antennae at embassies, undercover activities really are happening in Tallinn. Folks, watch out.

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