After nearly a year of investigation, UC and UCSB auditors released a report investigating charges of phone tapping in office of Executive Vice Chancellor Ilene Nagel.
The report found the phone system was capable of eaves dropping in the offices of Nagel and Associate Vice Chancellor Stan Awramik. The report could not prove if these phone system capabilities were used or misused to listen to private conversations due to a lack of telephone system’s records and differences in testimony.
Four of the 18 telephones in Academic Personnel and the executive vice chancellor’s office were programmed for a feature known as “barge-in,” which allows a user to access a telephone conversation without visual or audible alerts. One phone is found in Nagel’s office, another in Awramik’s office and two in the Academic Personnel office on the fourth floor of Cheadle Hall. The feature can be programmed to provide a tone, but the default is to not have one.
Communications Services does not keep records more than two years old and rarely keeps records of any type of phone assistance, so there is no paper with information on the installation or use of a phone tap. And, according to the audit, the “relevant parties’ memories have not produced a definitive picture of the origin of the feature in terms of timeframe, purpose and intended use, and authorizing party.”
Nagel said she had a former FBI agent sweep her office in search of a bugging device in January 2001, after private conversations were repeated back to her. He did not find the device, but did find that other people were capable of listening to her phone conversations without her knowledge.
“For nearly a year, private conversations were repeated to me or acted upon in such a way as to suggest that my office might have been bugged,” she said in a statement.
In April 2001, Nagel heard unexplained fax tones on her personal line and asked Communications Services to examine the phone system.
The auditors also found that a telephone line splitter on a seldom-used fax machine connected the line to Nagel’s private phone line. Known as a panel patch, the splitter allows an analog phone like a fax machine to communicate with a digital phone, like all the Panasonic ones in UCSB offices, Communications Services assistant director Paul Valenzuela said.
According to the audit, investigators are still not sure if the telephone on the fax was in use at the time it was plugged into Nagel’s phone, and if it was done in error during a system expansion in early 2001.
The barge-in feature is like software that must be programmed into the telephone, while the panel patch is like hardware and must be physically placed on a phone. Information on how to program phone for the barge-in feature can be found on the Internet or from an user guide from Communications Systems, but this service is rarely requested since it is very intrusive, Valenzuela said.
“It’s not easy. I mean someone couldn’t just walk in and do it,” he said.
Nagel said she had no prior knowledge of the barge-in feature until she had it removed in April 2001.
“The fact that a capability for an extraordinary invasion of privacy was enabled, without our knowledge or our approval, is most disturbing,” she said in a statement. “I am pleased, however, that the audit investigation reports finally puts to rest the question of whether this eavesdropping capability was merely alleged or indeed existed.”
Telephones within the system also have a feature where one person can press the intercom key, dial an individual intercom number – usually two digits – and access an audible conversation in the room, but not on a phone line. Though this feature usually produces some type of signal tone “with moderate telephone systems knowledge [it] could be programmed to occur without audible alert,” the audit states. This form of interference emits a small red light that is very hard to override.
The report encourages UCSB to consider the privacy issues and vulnerabilities within the phone systems.
“This is a really dumb phone system because it doesn’t have a lot of security and is really simple to manipulate,” Valenzuela said.
“I would like to thank the UC Office of the President for the attention and expertise that it has devoted to this inquiry,” Chancellor Henry Yang said in a statement. “We take issues of privacy very seriously on this campus. When questions were raised suggesting that the security of our private telephone lines might have been compromised, this campus and the UC Office of the President took all appropriate steps to thoroughly investigate the matter.”