[ISN] Spy technology a threat to conclave's secrecy

InfoSec News isn at c4i.org
Wed Apr 13 06:24:51 EDT 2005


[Just goes to show you, EVERYONE has to worry about high-tech security
headaches, even the Vatican has IT, electronic, and physical security
threats to be concerned about.   - WK]

April 12, 2005

VATICAN CITY -- Spying has gotten a lot more sophisticated since John 
Paul II was elected in 1978, but the Vatican seems confident it can 
protect the tradition of secrecy that will surround next week's 
meeting of cardinals to name a new pope.

Computer hackers, electronic bugs and supersensitive microphones are 
among the possibilities.

Vatican security members wouldn't discuss the details of any 
anti-bugging measures to be used during the conclave. But Giuseppe 
Mazzullo, a private detective and retired Rome police officer whose 
former unit worked with the Vatican in the past, has said the Holy See 
is expected to reinforce its own experts with Italian police and 
private security contractors.

"The security is very strict," Mazzullo said. "For people to steal 
information, it's very, very difficult if not impossible."

Thousands of reporters will be watching as the 115 cardinals gather 
Monday. Hackers and government informants may also be monitoring the 

Revelations of the proceedings could prove embarrassing to the 
Vatican. For instance, sensitive discussions on a papal candidate's 
stand on relations with Muslims or Jews, recognizing China rather than 
Taiwan, or views on contraception would be sought-after by governments 
and the news media.

In 1996, John Paul set rules to protect cardinals from "threats to 
their independence of judgment." Cell phones, electronic organizers, 
radios, newspapers, televisions and recorders were banned from 

Cell phones and personal data organizers can be hacked and used to 
broadcast the proceedings to a listener, security experts say.

"An eavesdropper can reach into those devices and turn on the 
microphone and turn it into an eavesdropping device," said James 
Atkinson, who heads a Gloucester, Mass., company that specializes in 
bug detection.

Also, rooftop snoops with sensitive laser microphones can pick up 
conversations from a quarter-mile away by recording vibrations on 
window glass or other hard surfaces. The Sistine Chapel, where the 
conclave will be held, has windows set near the roof.

Laser microphones can be thwarted with heavy drapes and by masking 
conversations with ambient noise.

Tougher to root out are tiny transmitters or recorders as small as a 

To handle those, teams acting on the pope's 1996 orders would need to 
mount complex sweeps of sensitive meeting areas, taking out carpets, 
poking through chair cushions, opening heating ducts and testing 
electrical wiring, light bulbs and water pipes, Atkinson said.

The late pope deemed the threat to the conclave serious enough to 
decree that those who break their oaths of secrecy can be cast out of 
the church.

In a sign of nervousness about maintaining secrecy, the College of 
Cardinals decided Saturday to halt interviews with the news media.

"They've assured us there are ways to block all communications and 
conversations," Chicago Cardinal Francis George said last week.

But even with precautions, halting a spy inside the Vatican -- perhaps 
an unwitting one -- is probably the toughest threat to block, experts 

"Are they going to search all the cardinals to see whether someone 
bugged their spectacles or crucifixes?" asked Giles Ebbut, a 
surveillance expert for the London consultancy Jane's. "The 
imagination can run riot."

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