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Mobile phones switch off encryption 24hrs

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Thursday, Jul. 10, 2003. Page 3

Police and FSB Listen In on Mobile Phone Calls

By Valeria Korchagina
Staff Writer

Mobile phone providers switched off their encryption systems for 24 hours on a government order, allowing the Federal Security Service and the police to eavesdrop on all calls.

An alert notifying callers that their conversations could be listened in on popped up on cellphones around Moscow at 9 p.m. Tuesday and lasted until 9 p.m. Wednesday on an order by the Communications Ministry. The alert, depending on the model of cellphone, is usually either an exclamation point or an unlocked padlock.

The Communications Ministry said it issued the order at the request of the Interior Ministry, Interfax reported Wednesday.

The Interior Ministry could not be reached for comment. The FSB refused to comment.

"The action taken to shut down the encryption system was conducted in accordance to the existing law and in order to prevent crimes," Mobile TeleSystems said in a statement Wednesday.

"All cellular operators provide technical support to law enforcement agencies as required under the law. We do not comment about the actions of the special services -- they do their work in the best interests of Moscow residents," Megafon said.

The decision to shut down encryption follows the double suicide bombings that killed 14 people at the Krylya rock festival Saturday. A cellphone was found on one of the female suicide bombers, and the FSB is examining its SIM card for clues as to whether the bombers coordinated the attack with accomplices, according to local media reports.

The last time Moscow callers saw the encryption alert on their cellphones was during the Dubrovka theater crisis in October, when a group of 41 Chechen rebels took more than 800 people hostage. After a three-day standoff, special forces piped gas into the theater to knock out the captors and rescue the hostages. But more than 120 hostages died, most from the effects of the gas.

The only court conviction in the theater tragedy was handed down last month to Zaurbek Talkhigov, who was charged with using his cellphone to pass key information about law enforcement activities during the crisis. The charge was based on tapes of Talkhigov's cellphone conversations. A Moscow court sentenced Talkhigov, 25, to 8 1/2 years in prison on June 20 and ordered the tapes destroyed.

Mobile phone providers shut down their encryption systems in St. Petersburg for security reasons during the city's 300th anniversary celebrations attended by world leaders early last month.

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