BEIRUT: Recent alleged assassination attempts on Lebanese political figures have brought the issue of telecommunications data to the forefront of Lebanese political discussion.
No data have become more coveted than those handed over to security forces Friday by the Telecommunications Ministry following an intense political battle: the International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI).
Some believe the IMSI will be the linchpin of security services’ investigation of the alleged attempts on the lives of Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and Batroun MP Butros Harb.
On July 5, Harb claimed to have been targeted for assassination following the discovery of two explosive devices atop the elevator in the Badaro building housing his law office.
He recently spoke to The Daily Star about the importance of telecoms data.
“In the only [assassination] attempts in Lebanon ... about which we discovered anything ... [the discovery] was due to the data information about the communications,” Harb said.
The data mentioned by Harb come from the IMSI, a method of identification using a unique 15-digit number found in the SIM cards of cellphones, and is possibly the most valuable piece of communication-related information for security sources.
“We are asking to study the movement of unusual communication between numbers that [are rarely used],” Harb said.
He added that examining data from IMSIs that appear only during specific times, like assassination attempts, might uncover those suspected of being behind the crimes.
“This is how [details of] the Rafik Hariri case were discovered and how the [Israeli spy networks in Lebanon] were discovered and arrested,” Harb said.
Professor Ayman Kayssi, an Electrical and Computer Engineering professor at the American University of Beirut who specializes in telecom network security, explained to The Daily Star what it is that an IMSI does.
“The phone will constantly communicate with the cell tower to tell it ‘I’m here,’” Kayssi said.
A mobile phone is traceable via the IMSI whenever it has service and is able to make and receive calls.
On July 13, The New York Times published an article called “That’s No Phone. That’s My Tracker,” claiming that a cellphone is actually “a tracking device that happens to make calls.”
Riad Bahsoun, CEO & Managing Director of Telecommunication Information Technology, said that the IMSI holds data that “identify the user, the location of the user and who [the user] has been in contact with.”
He added that such information cannot be obtained without the IMSI.
Nigel Inkster, Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk for the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and veteran of British intelligence service MI6, told The Daily Star in an email: “Much of the value of what ICT [information and communications technology] intercepts, whether phone calls, texts or emails, lies not in their content per se but in the connections they establish between members of a network who are probably trying to appear unconnected.”
“For an investigating agency these so-called meta-data are often more important than the content of the messages,” he added.
Kayssi considers the IMSI a crucial piece of information in locating perpetrators of crimes.
“The IMSI is the unique identifier of the ‘phone line’ and without it, it would be very hard to derive any useful information,” he said.
With security agencies having just been granted access to all the IMSI data for 2012 that they have requested, concerns have arisen that giving them such information could constitute an invasion of privacy.
“Why do you want to know that I was in Maamaltein Saturday night!” Kayssi said jokingly, referring to an area renowned for its Super Nightclubs – a Lebanese euphemism for strip clubs.
“I don’t think you can just ignore the privacy issue,” Kayssi said. “If [the operators] give all the data to the security agency they will know where you went every minute of the day.”
Indeed, concerns are rife that the data could be manipulated and used for purposes such as character assassination.
Some observers claim that one cannot have it both ways. Inkster of IISS goes so far as to say that there “is no one way of reconciling privacy and security, and the nature of modern ICT makes this a much harder issue to address than it previously has been.”
Investigations in Lebanon are often held up due to poorly defined laws governing data sharing between authorities as well as mistrust between security agencies and politicians.
In his interview with The Daily Star, Harb declined to speak at length about security agencies’ alleged political leanings, though he did acknowledge the phenomenon and describe it as unfortunate.
“We have some doubts over how some institutions are managed and about the credibility of some of them but I don’t want to get into this,” Harb said.
Nevertheless, the politicization of Lebanese security is apparent even to outside observers.
According to Inkster, “Clearly intelligence and security in Lebanon is far more politicized than in countries such as the U.K. or the U.S. In either of those countries the assassination of a political figure from whichever party would give rise to an extensive investigation using all available techniques.”
Inkster believes that the “key is for governments to develop clear and transparent arrangements for communication interceptions” which can be reviewed by an Interception Commissioner who looks at the legal basis for all such activities, as is done in the U.K.” But he added that only data relevant to the investigation should be used in court proceedings.
The problem in Lebanon is that the laws governing such matters are unclear. The recent events involving the IMSI have led to calls by President Michel Sleiman to amend the only law relating to the right to privacy involving technology: Law 99/140.
The Central News Agency reported that Sleiman demanded an acceleration of amendments to Law 140 so that security agencies’ demands might be met.
The current legal framework is “not clear,” according to Bahsoun, the Chief Executive of Telecommunication Information Technology.
“The law doesn’t say who or which party must decide who investigates the issue,” Bahsoun explained.
In Bahsoun’s view, the issue is a judicial one that should be handled by a General Prosecutor and that “not even a minister has the right” to ask for data.
“This is how situations are dealt with in ‘developed and smart countries,’” he added.
While the IMSI has been heralded by many as a panacea for unsolved cases, experts say that new technologies are now superseding it in terms of value and effectiveness.
But for the time being, this will have little impact on police and investigative work in Lebanon, because the new technology is not yet available and because data found on a SIM card can still aid agencies in locating wanted or suspicious persons.
As Harb says, “Having the IMSI’s data doesn’t mean that ... you are certain to reach the best possible result, but at least it will help you to reach a result.”