Tag Archives: sigint

Minor паранойя – Why was my Apple computer typing in Russian yesterday?

My blog yesterday

Мой блог вчера

When I grew up, the trendy always said: “No matter how paranoid you are, they’re always doing more than you think.”

I met American financial guru Max Keiser a couple of days ago for a chat which ended up in yesterday’s blog.

He appears on the RT television channel – apparently it is no longer called Russia Today because another Russian channel is now using that name. He has his own show called The Keiser Report. As far as I know, no-one else is yet producing a show with that name.

When we arranged to meet, I asked (via an e-mail) for his mobile phone number.

“I don’t have a phone,” he replied.

How strange, I thought.

He is a TV presenter and journalist I thought… No mobile phone?

Then I thought further.

Aha! I thought. Either he just doesn’t want to give out his number to all and sundry… OR… Maybe it is because he works for RT – which is financed by the Russian government.

Maybe people who work for RT do not have mobile phones because it means they could be tracked by GPS positioning and I presume that the microphones on mobile phones (as with landlines) can be remotely activated so that anything said near them can be listened-in-to.

In fact, when I met Max, it seemed he just can’t be bothered with mobile phones. Seems strange to me. But then most things do. Also, his show is produced for RT by the US company Associated Press.

So we had our chat and, yesterday morning, I was transcribing the conversation I recorded on my iPhone onto my MacBook Pro computer.

I had got about halfway through. I had typed in references to Russia Today, corruption at the UK’s Big Four banks, the Iranian government’s Press TV channel and was typing a bit about the Al Jazeera English channel when everything new I typed suddenly started appearing in Russian Cyrillic letters.

On the screen, it read:

So, if executives have fallen into disfavour with Al Jazeera, they have to sneak out of the country.

“What show did you make for them?”

We had a long-standing contract to make a series of documentary films for a show called People & Power.

“And why is Russia Today doing a capitalist business programme?”

Well, Russia Today has left the Cold War far behind unlike America, which still ыууьы ещ цфте ещ иу ашпрештп еру Сщдв Цфкю Ша нщг дщщл фе еру круещкшс сщьштп щге

I typed a bit more.

It read:

Ша нщг дщщл фе еру круещкшс сщьштп щге щаююю

I tried typing gibberish – random English letters. They read:


I studied Russian for two years at school but, of course, I can neither speak nor read it. I am, after all, British.

I went into the Settings of the computer, into Language and Region… It said Preferred Languages: British English primary and gave English (presumably American English) as a second preference. It said my region was United Kingdom.

I looked at the Keyboard Text preferences. It said British English.

I went back and typed more random letters. They came up on the screen as:

рпсоп ирщшгнгщ8 итгн эжщх

Minor paranoia sidled into the back of my mind.

Fair enough, there’s always a slight chance some SigInt computer somewhere might have me on a vague-watch list. I will be on some minor computerised file somewhere because my father had to be positively vetted for his job during the Cold War (he worked for a radar company and had to visit the bunkers in the late 1950s); I worked for BBC News where (I was later told by my boss) there was a slight delay accepting me because, at that time, all potential employees’ details were sent “for checking”; and I have been to places like Albania under Enver Hoxha, Siberia, Soviet Central Asia, Laos and two trips to North Korea. In mitigation, my first trip to North Korea in 1986 also included the Head of the BBC’s South East Asian Section, a reporter for The Times and a reporter for the Guardian.

If you have been, thankyou for listening

If you have been, thankyou for listening. Спасибо товарищ

It would be a very over-enthusiastic listening computer who paid any real attention to me and to the fact I was typing the words Russia Today, RT, Iranian government, Press TV, Al Jazeera (and, as it happens, the word beheading) – and, even then, why start changing the text I am typing into Cyrillic? As a paranoia-inducing warning?

As far as I knew, I had not changed the keyboard from British English to Russian by mistake and, surely to do that, I would have had to probably simultaneously hold down the Command or Alt key and one or two other keys.

But I have no problem with being eavesdropped-on.

This whole recent Edward Snowden hoo-hah about the NSA and GCHQ hoovering-up communications information on millions of people willy-nilly in countries worldwide bemuses me.

Surely that is their job???

If you are a criminal or an international terrorist, you should have the common sense not to carry a mobile phone, not to put any sensitive information on any computer linked to the internet and not to talk in any room with a telephone receiver in it.

I just assume anything everyone says anywhere may be listened-in-to and that could be in the street or in any room in your or anybody else’s house. Who knows what level of technology the satellites have up there in the sky? It is entirely possible that every sound on earth is being listened-in-to with everything filtered out except human voices and the computers listening for certain key words in key languages.

Car number plates are routinely read by cameras all over the UK. Even my local Sainsbury supermarket’s computer reads the number plates of vehicles going into its car park and displays the time your free parking ends. Street cameras can use face recognition systems. The new Apple iPhone has fingerprint recognition of its owner.

What I’m saying is the level at which I am liable to get worried about the government (any government) reading my computer and listening-in on my telephone is virtually non-existent. I really don’t care. Thank god we had the Ultra Secret in World War II and the Germans did not know we had it.

Still… It was bizarre that, without me doing anything, my Mac’s keyboard was suddenly typing in Russian yesterday. So I booked a free appointment at an Apple Store for yesterday afternoon.

I finished my blog yesterday morning on my eternally-un-named friend’s unaffected MacBook computer.

And, just before I went to the Apple Store in the afternoon, I checked my own computer again.

It was still typing in Russian.

Then I noticed a Russian flag had appeared in the menubar.

I noticed a Russian flag had appeared on my computer

The Russian flag appeared in my computer menubar

Sure enough, when I changed the flag to a British one, the words I typed reverted to English.

It seem that, when I had looked in the Keyboard Preferences, I had not checked the Input Sources menu which allows you to change the keyboard language.

So – as in most cases – this was an example supporting the balls-up theory of history rather than any conspiracy theory.

Except that, for this balls-up to have happened, I would have had to – unknowingly – while transcribing – move the computer cursor up to the menubar, click to make the drop-down menu appear, move the cursor down from the British flag to the Russian flag and change the setting from British to Russian.

The other odd thing is that, in my menubar settings, I know I did have the option to change the keyboard from British to Italian (I have a friend who lives in Italy) but, as far as I am aware, I had never ever inserted the ability to switch to Russian.

Why would I?

That remains a mystery.

But – frankly – I don’t give a shit what happens in the upper Echelons.

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Wikileaks in reverse? Am I paranoid? Or are the Powers That Be reading every word I write?

Today there are reports that ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown thinks the News of the World may have hacked into his phone calls. Well Whoop-di-doop, Gordon, welcome to the 21st century.

In the late 1960s, I remember the London magazine Time Out reported that MI5 was listening in to all diplomatic telephone calls via a telephone exchange in (if memory serves me correctly) Kensington. A computer was scanning all calls and listening-in for keywords. This sounded very futuristic back then.

When the extremely right wing and, in my opinion, neo-Fascist Tony Blair was Prime Minister, he had no problem attempting to create profoundly anti-democratic laws. I remember one bright idea he had (never actually implemented) was to detain known football hooligans to prevent them going to a match if the police believed they might be thinking of perhaps planning to commit a crime. In other words he believed it would be OK to make Thought Crime an imprisonable offence.

Yet the one thing he was strangely opposed to throughout his Orwellian reign was allowing intercepts – phone taps – to be used in evidence in criminal trials. This continues to fascinate me. Why would he object?

He claimed that allowing intercepts to be used in evidence in open court would expose their origin. But, if we are talking about phone tap evidence, what is the problem?

Criminals know that anything they say on a telephone line may be legally and perfectly reasonably intercepted. They know that already. Everyone knows that. So saying in court that evidence has come from a wire tapped by the police or security services is not ‘revealing’ anything. It would only be revealing a hidden source if evidence had been collected and intercepted in some way other than from a wire tap… in which case, of course, the security services would not want to reveal that they had access to that unrevealed form of interception.

So what could that unrevealed and secret form of intercept be if it were not traditional phone tapping?

Telephones are two-way communication devices with built-in microphones. They are transmitters as well as receivers. You no longer need to install listening devices at telephone exchanges to tap phones. You can remotely make the microphones in the handsets active and thus listen in to anything said in a room. Most people have telephones in their living rooms and often their bedrooms; these can listen to and transmit anything said in the rooms. People with mobile phones not only carry transmitters with built-in microphones everywhere they go, but they are carrying GPS devices which can pinpoint their position to within a few feet.

But this is merely a variation on traditional eavesdropping. Would that really be why Tony Blair was so wary of the security services having to reveal in open court what their intercept sources might be?

I remember back in the late 1960s or early 1970s – certainly more than 30 years ago and before the really vast advances in computer development – a Cheltenham taxi driver called Barry Prime was tried in camera under the Official Secrets Act on charges which were never made public. The Sunday Times reported at the time he had told the Soviets that Britain’s GCHQ and America’s NSA had a satellite in (I think geostationary) orbit over the Soviet Union which could listen in to all above-ground communications – listening for keywords in all phone calls sent via the normal microwave system, walkie talkie calls, radio phone calls between, say, a Politburo member in his car and someone sitting in the Kremlin and possibly even a politician sitting in his office talking to his secretary on a wireless intercom. As a result, the Soviets buried all their sensitive communications in landlines, the West lost invaluable intelligence and Barry Prime was sentenced to a staggering number of years in jail (and seems to have been wiped from history and thus Google searches).

Journalist Duncan Campbell also got into trouble in 1985-1986 for revealing that GCHQ intended to launch a SigInt satellite called Zircon.

At one time, one of the words you were never supposed to speak on a telephone line in the UK was the word “Echelon” because it triggered all sorts of intelligence computers listening-in for keywords. Presumably if you mentioned “Echelon” AND “Burlington” AND “Turnstile” or even “Corsham”, then the eavesdropping computers would have had an orgasm of excitement. If, way back then, you had also mentioned “Stockwell”, “Site 3” and “Hawthorn“, then the Men in Black would probably have been sitting in a car outside your house the next day.

Modern satellites’ cameras can read the markings on the epaulettes of a soldier standing in a field outside Vladivostok or travelling in an open Jeep in Iraq. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that satellites which, more than 30 years ago, could listen in on all above-ground electronically-transmitted voice chatter can now listen-in to all human voice communication on a small area of the surface of the earth – let’s say the whole of the UK – and filter out bird song, traffic noises, water sounds etc to leave only the sounds created by human voices… and then to listen-in for keywords.

There was a saying in the late 1960s: “However paranoid you are, they’re always doing more than you think.”

What if any conversation on any street, in any room could be listened-in to by a satellite? What if anything you say out loud can be heard by the computers?

Plus ça change.

Though, in fact, I don’t object.

It’s a fact of modern British life.

The British public have no real objection to street security cameras. So why object to blanket voice surveillance?  After all, it was us who created 1984 not some foreign johnny. All e-mails leaving or entering the UK are scanned; presumably all blogs are scanned; presumably everything on the World Wide Web is scanned because the Internet was originally a military project.

If Google can do it, then I certainly hope Echelon, GCHQ and the NSA can do it.

And let’s not even start to think about Google Street View.

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