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Norwegian Police has equipment capable of listening in on IP-telephone conversations

..and chances are high they also can monitor all other communication systems. Big brother can read your e-mail and so forth. The protection is GNU Privacy Guard, a tool allowing you to secure your mail and instant message chats. The voice and video phone program Gnomemeeting allows you to call other Internet users free, but it does not support encryption.

The major telecommunication companies are now all talking about "IP telephony" as the new big thing. Local telecommunication monopolies and fiber network owners are frightened they may loose the squeeze from forced year after year from customers who no longer need them.

Voice based communications has been available for Linux since 2001 by using Gnomemeeting and other excellent software. Gnomemeeting also supports video using any off-the-shelf web camera. You will need to aquire a headset with a built-in attached microphone, preferably cordless, if you want to use it for anything beyond play.

The Norwegian Police told they have the equipment needed listen in on broadband telephony calls (Norwegian) 2004-08-13. They also claim to be up to date on technology and well prepared for the future.

The police where unable to eavesdrop on GSM cellphone calls for a short period when it was introduced. They quickly solved this by using vans with equipment simulating a local base station. The two local cellphone providers, Netcom and Telenor, equipped them well a long time ago. The police can view all SMS messages, listen in and even view exactly where in the world you (or your phone, anyway) are at any given moment. Modern TV-series like The Grid and 24 have picked up on this and now frequently shows terrorists brutally smashing phones.

There is one similarity and many big differences between "broadband telephony" and "voice over ip". Both terms are very unclear. "Broadband telephony" probably means a phone provided by a provider that looks, acts and works like any normal telephone. It uses a broadband connection instead of the traditional copper between you and your provider, that is the only difference. The provider charges for usage, the generally lower fees are charged per the minute (or half hour..) just like a normal phone service. This is the phone-system the Norwegian Police claim they are capable of listening in on.

"Voice over IP" is a very general term and can be anything. The ruling standard is the H.323 teleconferencing protocol, used by Gnomemeeting, Netmeeting and all other modern PC communications software. You can provide your mother with a normal-looking H.323 IP Phone from ATCOM and talk to her too using H323.

H323 use actual IP adresses (or domains) to make completely free of charge calls. This means

  1. You can NOT call the old phone-number based telephone system using H323
  2. Calls are, unlike "broadband phones", completely free of charge. This is why H323 and Open Source programs using it eventually will kill traditional phone companies, and also why no-one is trying to promote it.

Gnomemeeting can make calls to normal telephones using a gateway like the the provider microtelco. but rates are terrible when compared to local calls at most locations. This may be about to change, Gnomemeeting developer Damien Sandras recieved 2 Grandstream IP Phones from Eikonex 2004-05-02 and is currently working on SIP porting.

It is harder to monitor H323 activity, but it is quite possible. Let me put it like this: Your Internet "privacy" is in the hands of your ISP and they can and will provide as much aid as possible when asked (with and some without a warrant) to do so. Norway is a quiet, peaceful country mostly covered with untouched, beautiful nature, and the small local police fource has equiptment to monitor email, irc, im-networks and other data trafic, broadband phones, mobile phone and all other phones for that matter. You have absolutely no reason to assume your privacy is respected in your country. You may be tapped for any or no reason, these days everything with a pulse is a "suspected terrorist" with no (constitutional) rights whatsoever.

There are some ways to encrypt voice calls, but there is no standard. Software like Xten do the job, but they only offer clients for Windows and MAC OS X. Linux users know they can pipe audio from /dev/dsp through encryption software and send it through a SSL connection or a tunnel, but you can not call such solutions very user friendly.1337 can look into cryptcat, a lightweight version of netcat with integrated transport encryption capabilities. Esound (esd manual) is another nerd-only alternative.

The awful truth is that you have two real, widely accepted, tested and effective ways to really protect your communications. Both use the GNU Privacy Guard for encryption.

  1. Electronic mail. Yes, good old email. Learn how to use the GNU Privacy Guard. "Everybody" uses is, so should you. I personally view anyone without a gpg key as ignorant and blind.
  2. Text-based instant messages. Most Jabber clients are capable of encrypting conversations real-time using gnupg.
    • GAIM does NOT support gnupg. There is something called GAIM Encryption PlugIn available, but it is a dead horse because it only allows you to communicate securely with other people using the same plug-in. Secure chats are not only limited to people who use Gaim, it is limited to people using Gaim who also bothered to install the extra component.
    • PSI supports encrypting Jabber conversations with gnupg.
      • Windows, Linux, Mac OS X
    • gabber is a nice GNOME Jabber client.
      • Supports gnupg encryption and filetransfer
      • Only available for Linux

It is generally a very good idea to encrypt all your communications, regardless of what kind of information you are transferring. You should consider everything transmitted as read by third parties unless you actually taken steps to secure the connection.

You should also look into file system encryption. You can use cryptoloop (free) or BestCrypt ($50) to make sure your secrets die with you.

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