Bulgaria - in the Trap of the Wiretap

Special Report |Author: Maria Guineva | February 3, 2011, Thursday // 19:30|  views

Taped phone conversations between Bulgarian PM, Boyko Borisov (l) and the Director of the Customs Agency, Vanyo Tanov (r), leaked in public space, have triggered a huge scandal in the country. Photo by BGNES

A "Tapegate" scandal, revolving around leaked discrediting conversations of senior government officials, is raging in Bulgaria, making all January headlines, and giving clear indications what is to come in this yet-so-young election year.

The "Tapegate" Story Line

The scandal was triggered by three tapes of discrediting conversations between the Director of the Customs Agency, Vanyo Tanov, and his superiors – Finance Minister Simeon Djankov, and Deputy Finance Minister Vladislav Goranov.

The first tapes were released at a news conference held by the Galeria weekly, a paper believed to be the mouthpiece of Aleksei Petrov, former special agent of the State Agency for National Security DANS, (currently under house arrest), who has been investigated on organized crime charges since his detention in the much advertised "Operation Octopus" in February 2010.

At another press conference, Galeria released a tape of a conversation between Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov and the Customs Director, alleging Borisov provided a cover-up for the owner of the "Ledenika" beer company, Mihail Mihov.

The tapes reveal that Borisov had called Tanov with an order to immediately pull the tax agents out of the factory and that the "Ledenika" boss personally complained to the PM.

In another tape, Tanov can be heard telling his Deputy, Antoniy Strandzhev, to keep the documents secure while he is away.

Just last week, we witnessed the latest  "Tapegate" or "Tanovgate" chapter with a new recording in which Borisov instructs Tanov to make sure Customs agent, Nikolay Vuchev, a friend with whom he often plays football, is brought back to work at terminal 2 at Sofia airport.

Bulgarian Public Kept in the Dark

Despite the ragging scandal in political circles and the media, it is reported that common Bulgarians do not care much about the recordings and are rather worried by the skyrocketing prices and the unemployment.

However, for those who want to know if the content of the tapes is authentic and how these recordings have been made, instead of dissipating, the fog is getting thicker and thicker.

There is almost no doubt in society that the conversations took place. It is sufficient to listen to the familiar voices on the tapes, and Borisov, himself, admitted he has spoken to Tanov about both Mihov and Vuchev.

In a country such as Bulgaria, the truth about the content is not going to be enough to topple any government, even the one of the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), party despite the fact it won the election on promises to eradicate corruption. True, it is disillusioning, but for the last 65 years, the Bulgarian society got more than used to intercessions and protection of certain individuals – people in power just do it. Those who were hesitant about Borisov, have been disappointed by his rule long before the "Tanovgate;" those who admire him still religiously believe in his strength and charm.

However, the second question mark - how were the recordings made; who made them; how did they leak, and who in Bulgaria is spying on whom – is crucial. Are human rights being systematically violated; are the authorities spying illegally on anyone they wish, and is classified information offered "for sale" on the "black market" – these are sinister mysteries in an EU and NATO Member State.

Meanwhile, a research conducted by the Bulgarian daily "Dnevnik" revealed that every 3rd probe of who is communicating with whom on the phone or on the internet is executed without a Court warrant.

In the first 7 months, after the Electronic Communications Act (ECA) was passed, at least 10 000 private communications have been wiretapped, according to data, requested by "Dnevnik," under the Access to Public Information Act, from the Prosecutor's Office and the 8 largest Regional Courts.

When the police and intelligence services want to obtain information from an internet provider or mobile operator about communications of a certain customer, where the said individual has been located and for how long, they cannot do it without a Court warrant. From May 10, 2010, until December 1, 2010, the services have made 7 214 such request in the cities of Sofia, Plovdiv, Varna, Burgas, Ruse, Stara Zagora, Veliko Tarnovo, and Pleven.

Loopholes in ECA, however, allow the Prosecutor's Office to ask directly for traffic data from internet and phone communications, without involvement of the Court. Based on these loopholes, Chief Prosecutor, Boris Velchev, has instructed his subordinates that when a criminal investigation had been launched, there is no need of a court warrant.

So, in 7 months, prosecutors have asked 2 767 tracings of communications without a Court warrant, the "Dnevnik" investigation reveals.

According to unofficial data, during the term of the previous cabinet, the authorities have used 6 500 special surveillance devices (SRS) in a year; now their use has reached 20 000. In comparison, in the UK, 400 wiretaps have been applied in one year.

The National anti-Crime and anti-Terrorism Forum (NAAF) data shows that 95% of the devices are related to phone spying; less than 3% of them enter the Courts as evidence, and less than 1% is related to verdicts.

Brussels says they are alarmed by the scandal and the European Commission has requested information by the Bulgarian institutions. The documentation provided to the EU has been also kept secret from the Bulgarian public.

The only thing Bulgarian officials and institutions keep telling Bulgarians is that the tapes are manipulated because they are copies of the originals. Manipulation, however, does not equal falsification and tampering.

For this reason, a group of about 20 Bulgarian bloggers and computer experts got organized in an attempt to find the real truth. They are searching for it by educated guesses, deductions and eliminating the impossible. Their findings cast serious shadow of doubt on the official information and have been published on the internet (bivol.bg).

The group, formed on the basis of the so-called crowdsourcing method, state they do not protect any political interests, but are rather conducting a technical investigation.

The bloggers are experts in computer sciences and telecommunications. Their front-men, Atanas Tchobanov, (a PhD in computational linguistics from Paris West University) and Delyan Delchev (one of the top Bulgarian telecommunication engineers) have provided Novinite.com with their expert analysis, proving it is impossible that Tanov has taped himself or that the conversations have been eavesdropped by cell phone operators.

According to the Prosecutor's Office, the original recordings have been destroyed. The public might never learn the truth. But the bloggers' independent analysis (its more technical details can be found at the end of this article) leads to the conclusion the recordings have been made through SRS.

The bloggers' analysis further reveals that the conversations contain coded sound signals something like a watermark as protection from tampering.

Their findings lead to the conclusion that Bulgaria has huge problems not only with the GERB government promises to put an end to corruption and organized crime; it has tremendous issues inside the Interior Ministry and with leaks of classified information.

"Tapegate" Main Characters – Denial and Controversy

After claiming for weeks the recordings were tampered with, on January 28, Borisov made the following statement for the TV channel TV7:

"I never said these conversations did not take place. I make hundreds of calls each day and cannot remember everything. I am certain I called about Ledenika and about Vuchkov."

The Prime Minister still insisted the tapes were "manipulated" because one was 16 seconds and another 40 seconds longer than the real ones and accused President Georgi Parvanov, in alliance with Aleksei Petrov, of staging the attack on the cabinet.

Tanov says he does not remember any particular names being mentioned in his numerous conversations with Prime Minister, Boyko Borisov, and declares the recordings a total "fake." The Customs Chief's hypothesis is that the PM had been provoked to make these phone calls because many people have complained to him about being fired without a reason.

Tanov does, however, admit he knew he had been wiretapped, and that Parvanov complained to Borisov about the Customs Chief executing tax probes that are ruining some businesses. The PM had called Tanov to tell him about the President's "displeasure."

The owner of "Bulbrew BG," maker of "Ledenika," Mihail Mihov, called by Borisov "Misho The Beer," reiterated very recently (January 30) in a TV interview that he never called the PM and his last personal conversation with the latter happened in the summer of 2010 during the inauguration of a sports facility.

In the interview, Mihov further denied ever speaking to Parvanov despite the fact that on the day the recordings were released he said at a special press conference he had approached the President regarding the revoking of the brewery's license. Parvanov, himself, is yet to definitively say did he or did he not vouch for the businessman.

"I ended tangled in this scandal only over the "Ledenika" tax probe. I never took part in politics, never supported and funded any party. None of what has been circulating in public space has been my words," Mihov declared.

The businessman explained he met with both Tanov and Finance Minister, Simeon Djankov. The official meetings to discuss the factory's license revocation were scheduled on Mihov's request.

Meanwhile, former Deputy Director of Bulgaria's Customs Agency, Antoniy Strandzhev, confirmed for a number of media outlets his taped conversation with ex-boss, Vanyo Tanov, is authentic (link).

The Rosen Milenov Case

On January 21, the late night talk show of popular host, Slavi Trifonov, aired a video of a former employee of Bulgaria's National Agency for State Security (DANS), Rosen Milenov, speaking about quitting DANS and abandoning a promising career because he disagreed with the policies of Interior Minister, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, who was using the Agency to discredit political opponents.

In the video, Milenov insisted on a hearing with the Parliamentary Subcommittee for Special Surveillance Devices Control over having classified information on the scandalous tapes.

On January 26, Milenov appeared before the Subcommittee. After the 4-hour long talks with Milenov, the Subcommittee's Head, Yavor Notev, declined offering details, but stated the information obtained by the former DANS employee is worth a further probe.

Notev further said the Subcommittee's members need more time to verify all details, adding Milenov had been very laconic in describing the situation.

The former DANS employee was led outside the Parliament building by guards in order to prevent media access to him.

Details surrounding Milenov remain unclear.

The Official Bulgarian Probe Deepens the Confusion

On January 19, the Prosecutor's Office announced the findings of the National Institute of Forensic Science at the Interior Ministry.

The conclusion of the experts is that the tapes are not original and have been recorded from one device to another, which has allowed manipulations.

According to the conclusions of the investigation, the tapes were created by re-recording original stereo signals using additional electronic devices, most likely a computer.

The forensic scientists have examined three tapes containing conversations of Tanov, Borisov, Djankov, Deputy Finance Minister Vladislav Goranov, and Straldzhev.

"The tapes have varying levels and quality of the signal. The examination has found background noise with similar frequency characteristics and a signal with frequency and amplitude that repeats in the three tapes. This provides basis for the conclusion that they were rerecorded under the same acoustic conditions. At the beginning and at the end, there is a sound from a recording device or touching a microphone," states the expert conclusion, which also adds that all three tapes exhibit a sound signal in the Windows XP Ding.wav format.

The experts are convinced that there are many unnatural deviations of the frequency and amplitude of the signal.

The examination has revealed "irregularities in the parameters of the syntax, intonation, and style of the expressions.

"The deviations described above in the amplitude and frequency characteristics and in the syntax, style, and intonation features could be the result of manipulations of the tapes," states the expert position.

The experts point out, however, that the additional noise and the changes in the signal limit the opportunities to discover specific indications of manipulation.

Additional conclusions, specifically on the authenticity of the tapes are yet to be submitted by computer expects and the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. The expected date is February 10. The results would not be, however, announced immediately, since they need to be first examined by the Parliamentary SRS Subcommittee.

Meanwhile, the Parliamentary Subcommittee held several hearings of Interior Ministry employees, contributing nothing else, but deepening the utter confusion.

On January 27, the Subcommittee called the Head of the Interior Operational and Technical Information Directorate, which is in charge of the "spying" and Prosecutor, Plamen Georgiev, who supervised the probe involving the snooping on Tanov.

The Chair of the SRS Control Subcommittee, Yavor Notev, said that the supervising prosecutor neither confirmed, not denied the authenticity of the tapes. Notev failed to give any clear answers to two key questions – are the conversations authentic and did the Prosecutor's Office receive the information from SRS before it was destroyed.

Notev refused to say the name of the employee who had the task to present to the prosecutor the results of the taping. He explained the experts were focusing on the accompanying noises, but it remained unclear if he was talking about some new information or the Forensic Institute probe.

"We are still unable to say with certainty of these conversations are authentic. We just know they have been rerecorded," Notev pointed out.

Meanwhile reporters waited for 3 hours to speak to Prosecutor Georgiev, but he avoided meeting them.

On the next day, Bulgaria's Prosecutor's Office denied having had access to any of the published phone conversations.

"The Prosecutor's Office of Bulgaria states that none of the phone conversations circulating in public space have been presented to the supervising prosecutor or any other employee of the Prosecutor's Office, as the media claims," the official statement said.

Tsvetelin Yovchev, Head of DANS, who is yet to appear before the Parliamentary Committees, has stated that the allegedly taped phone conversations are manipulated. In his words, those who hope that the recorded conversations are real are up for an unpleasant surprise.

The very latest hearings - of Interior Minister, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, and Chief Prosecutor, Boris Velchev, did nothing but to contribute to the reigning mix-up. Details are scarce, but from what the media has learned, it can be summarized that Tsvetanov claimed he did not know anything about the spying on Tanov's calls while Velchev had not discarded the possibility Tanov was spied on "more than what was allowed" – after the SRS have been destroyed.

From all these goings back and forth in the last three weeks, this is what has been confirmed so far – Tanov had been legally spied on in connection to a probe against a contraband group and the use of the SRS had been signed by Tsvetanov (despite the fact he "does not know anything" about this spying). The request for the SRS use came from the Prosecutor's Office, but the transcripts of the registered calls have not been sent back to them.

One thing, however, seems more than certain - in the last 20 years Bulgaria has not moved very far away from the old Communist tactics of keeping the population in the dark.

The French Connection

Unlike Bulgarian experts, their French colleagues from the Lipsadon lab are firm the recordings have not been subject to any tampering and manipulations, except the fact that they have been rerecorded.

The independent French examination was ordered by the editors of Galeria. They sent for analysis the conversation between Borisov and Tanov related to the probe of the "Ledenika" brewery.

Lipsadon Summary Conclusions

It can be firmly stated the examined recordings have not been forged. The reception via a microphone, used to record the said phone connection, does not bare any traces of sound "manipulation" that could be found by Lipsadon. The recording is homogeneous, linear and linked.

Regarding a supposed phone conversation, appearing in the recording of the air transmitting vector, Lipsadon cannot provide such convincing conclusion. In reality, the screen which represents the sound environment, generated by the final recording, does not allow a full examination of the parameters, commonly analyzed in such court investigations.

Nevertheless, the full sum of analyses that were executed by the lab (within the task's deadline) definitely leads to a conclusion about the homogeneity of the connection.

The collaboration of two separate and independent experts of Bulgarian language, who assisted the language method, needed to determine the zones that had to be outlined more concretely, reinforces this conclusion.

So, while including the limiting parameters, noted above, the work that was possible on the phone connection does not show any traces of sound manipulation that could be established by Lipsadon – montage, additions, deletions, voice over...

The report is signed.

No official comment had been made by Borisov, Tanov, Tsvetanov, and any of the other leading characters in the scandal.

Bloggers' Independent Analysis

The conclusion of the French lab Lipsadon is definite enough – the examined recording – Borisov-Tanov is not manipulated in the meaning of montage, mounting, cuts or changes in the conversation's content.

There aren't any reasons for us to doubt the competency of the experts or their conscientiousness. It is enough to point out two court trials in France with great public significance, where the analysis of the lab's founder, Norbert Pheulpin, acoustics expert with the Dijon Appellate Court, has been used – the trial for the explosion in the AZF factory in Toulouse (30 killed, 2 500 injured) and the still-ongoing trial for the brutal, racially motivated murder of Ilan Halimi, killed by the "Barbarians Gang."

In the AZF case, the owner's defense tried to prove the explosion had been a terrorist act (it occurred just days after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US). A key moment had been to establish if there had been one or two blasts – one would mean criminal recklessness; two – a possible premeditated attack. The magistrates were provided with numerous expert analyses – seismological, acoustic, chemical etc.  The acoustic analysis, proving there had been just one blast, interpreted as two, belonged to Pheulpin.

We will attempt below to answer questions which had not been included in the Lipsadon task. Consequently, the lab had not done all necessary analyses to give us a concrete response.

Are the Scandalous Tapes SRS?

If the tapes are SRS, this is an indication of tremendous problems in both the SRS Act and the Interior Ministry as a whole. Exactly for this reason, the Prime Minister attempts to focus the discussion on the content of the conversations, while Interior Minister, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, stubbornly keeps pointing out these might not be SRS, despite the fact he, certainly, knows the answer.

If the recordings are proven to be SRS, we have, as a minimum, the following problems:

Illegal spying (or spying very deeply in the "gray" zone) as Tanov and the Prosecutor insist

Very weak control on SRS (leaks of SRS – the original conversation does not matter as much as the question - can SRS be leaked?).

Warnings of pending wiretapping to the person being spied on (Tanov, who says he knew he was taped).

Cover-up of SRS (the Prosecutor's Office insist they never received these tapes).

These problems are what triggered the interest of the European Commission, not what Borisov or Tsvetanov did say. For this reason, Tsvetanov is applying superhuman efforts to in order to avoid admitting these are SRS (currently he is the only one who continues to hold on to this position), in order to not stir problems with the EC.

The answers to these questions are, however, quite simple. From the traffic data of the mobile operators, (to be kept for another month), one can find out if these conversations have indeed happened; who possibly did the spying, (and who had the means to eavesdrop). On the other hand side, the authorities insist the SRS have been destroyed and comparison is impossible, but according to the law, there must be registers, where it is noted who had access to them and if there have been recordings (similarly to the traffic data), which must be safeguarded for years and then one can intersect the two. The registers and the traffic data, (or even one of the two) are enough for this analysis. We have no access to either, for this reason we are making an indirect analysis of the tapes, but such analysis can still be very trustworthy.

There are 3 possibilities to spy on a cell phone (there is no doubt this has not been a stationary phone since the recordings have been made outside business hours and the main characters were at different locations, far away from their work places).

- On a signal route inside the mobile core;

- On the radio channel (all hacking techniques we read about)

- With the phone's software.

We do, however, have an open voice channel from Borisov to Tanov. It would not have been caught by a radio or phone spying of Tanov. The software wiretapping would further be expressed as an abnormal strength of Tanov's voice (or one of the two parties), so this hypothesis is rejected right on the spot. We further reject the possibility of radio spying in the course of 30 minutes simultaneously of Tanov, Borisov and Strandzhev, because this type of spying requires close proximity to all three while they have been kilometers away from each other. It would also have been an incredible luck to intercept exactly these conversations. This theory is extremely unlikely (the devices for radio spying, imported in Bulgaria as reported by Minister Tsvetanov, are exactly of the type requiring proximity).

Consequently, the one possibility left is spying inside the mobile core.

Spying inside the mobile core is a complex endeavor. It requires access and possibility of modification of the MSC (Mobile Signaling Controller used by mobile operators of the 2G type) signalization (otherwise it would be impossible to mark the route of the voice signal) or one must be on the route of the voice signal. The routes of the voice signals are quite chaotic and depend on the physical location of those speaking. As we know, Borisov, Tanov and Strandzhev have been hundreds of kilometers away from each other (particularly Strandzhev). The coincidence would have been too great for someone to have equipment on all potential routes of the BSC (Base Station Communication) where the voice is no longer encrypted and to intercept precisely these conversations, and to top it all - without someone noticing it on the mobile operator level. In addition, one must know the cell phone numbers of those listened to. Such equipment cannot be mounted and removed in one day without someone noticing.

In conclusion, we can deduct, the recording inside the core can be made only by the equipment of the Interior Ministry, acquired after 2003.

As we have reason to believe with over 90% certainty SRS have been involved, we can now focus on the characteristics of the conversations.

A 100% confirmation of SRS use is important in another aspect. The French experts from Lipsadon are firm the end recording (from the dictaphone) is authentic in content. But for the initial recording (the one made by the computer) they say the silencing of the characteristics of the analogue transfer of the sound to the dictaphone does not allow them the same certainty.

The French experts do not know that the SRS are the issue. We do, however, know that if SRS have been used, we can say with certainty that until the rerecording by a dictaphone, there has not been a modification of the recording. The technology for storing and reproducing SRS includes serious protection, eliminating the possibility to tamper with the recordings. Otherwise no Court would admit SRS as evidence.

So, if the SRS origin of the recordings is proven, it would become crystal clear neither the source of the rerecording nor the rerecording have been tampered with.

The Million Dollar Question - What Are These Beeps?

As the French analysis also notes, the recordings have indicators – periodical beeps at every 3250 Hz. Lipsadon experts say it is impossible to determine the source of these beeps. They did, however, analyze only one of the recording channels, while we have a stereo recording with 2 microphones, which is a much stronger indicator, helping the analysis.

For example, the hypothesis the beeps have been introduced during the dictaphone rerecording is rejected immediately. If the dictaphone placed the beeps, they would have the same power on both channels, but they don't. So, it was not the dictaphone. The hypothesis they could have come from another, outside source, not from the location where the sound came from at the time of the recording, is also easily dropped – in this case we would have simultaneously the following two effects – out-of-proportion strength of the beeps in the left and the right sound channel.

The hypothesis the beep is coming from a computer fan, USB, or a sound card is rejected by the form and the normalization of the sound,

We have now only the following two explanations left:

- The beep comes from the same source as the other sound

- The beep comes from a source between the loudspeaker and the dictaphone, but it is perfectly synchronized with the other sound – almost zero likelihood here.

So, there is a 99% likelihood, the beeps come from the sound source. But why are they there? This is an extremely important question. There is a well-grounded hypothesis this is an indicator against modifications left by the SRS equipment. The source of the beeps is digital, not acoustic, which is proven by their form and the lack of echo effects.

The real answer belongs to the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutors Office and they know it.

If these beeps are placed by the SRS equipment, they can be found on all SRS recordings, consequently scores of judges, prosecutors, and DANS and police employees have heart them many times. But there is a sinister silence about the beeps. There is no mention of them in the official report of the Forensic Institute.

This silence can be interpreted as an indirect confirmation about the SRS source, because they are also classified information. Regretfully, the public has no access to other SRS recordings to be used for comparison and this opens the door widely for speculations.

On the other hand side, the makers of this Lawful Intercept equipment say they place such markers and that the law and the procedures in Bulgaria requires their presence in order to guarantee authenticity so that they can be used in Court.

The beeps are a very interesting topic and a strong support for one or another hypothesis – they can indicate if the recordings were done with SRS and if they have been modified.

In conclusion, we encourage journalists reporting on "Tanovgate" to ask, at least once, officials involved in the case what are these beeps and where did they come from.

There is also a need for public pressure to declassify traffic data and the SRS registers for the leaked conversations. This information must be made public with the accompanying confirmation from the telecommunication operator. It must happen before mid-February, before traffic data is destroyed in order to stop speculations and help the independent analysis.

Serious Problems with Security of Information

During the discussions and after Rosen Milenov's hearing, it became evident that control over SRS at DANS and other services is extremely lax and inadequate. Agents share accounts; there is no mechanism for guaranteed authorization, and no protocols and logs of who has accessed the information, per Notev's own words.

If such protocols exists, they are kept for a very short time, most likely in violation of the terms imposed by the law and by good practices – to keep information of who had access is important for control and has no relation with the storing of the SRS.

In addition, according to publications of the "Access to Information" program, it emerged that one third of the collected traffic data and wiretaps have not been authorized by a judge over loopholes in the law. So, the very mechanism for real control on the use of SRS and traffic data is being skipped and there is an urgent need to put an end to these practices – they create conditions for lax discipline, abuses and debatable effect on the quality of the investigations.

The scandal revealed unbelievable omissions in the security of collecting SRS. The Parliamentary SRS Subcommittee and the Prosecutor's Office admitted the SRS have been accessible for the Operational and Technical Information Directorate (DOTI) at the Interior Ministry, the Unit for Combatting Organized Crime (GDBOP) and DANS, but the Prosecutor's Office has not been informed. Concealing collected SRS information, potentially indicating the need of an investigation, is a very serious problem – it opens the door for a number of private violations – stealing and hiding SRS, racket and blackmail, and trading influence.

If these problems are examined in depth and a serious attempt is made to solve them, (legally and procedurally at the Interior and DANS), this will be a great success for the State. Then, even though seemingly a paradox, the scandal will benefit the society and the institutions. SRS scandals are not just the trademark of the GERB cabinet. They pop up every 3 to 6 months. Let's remember that one Bulgarian cabinet – of Philip Dimitrov was toppled over such scandal.

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Tags: bloggers, Brussels, EC, wiretapping, wiretap, Ledenika, Mihail Mihov, Antoniy Strandzhev, GERB, president, special agent, DANS, Aleksei Petrov, finance minister, Interior Minister, customs agents, interior ministry, Customs Agency, DANS, State National Security Agency, Aleksei Petrov, tapping, tapped, Vladislav Goranov, Simeon Djankov, Tsvetan Tsvetanov, Vanyo Tanov, tabloid, Galeria, National Security Agency, Prosecutor's Office, conversations, phone, Boyko Borisov, Georgi Parvanov, SRS, special surveillance devices


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