Lyna has tutored undergraduate Information Management Systems and Database Development. She has a Bachelor's degree in Electrical Engineering and a Masters degree in Information Technology.
What is Eavesdropping?
Eavesdropping as we know it in layman terms is the act of secretly listening to a conversation, private or otherwise, of which we are not actively a part. In computer security, the definition carries the same meaning in digital terms. Eavesdropping in computer security is defined as the unauthorized interception of a conversation, communication or digital transmission in real time. The various forms of communication include phone calls, emails, instant messages or any other internet service.
The activities of eavesdropping normally do not cause disruptions on the normal operation of the systems being eavesdropped on. In reality, if one is eavesdropping on a conversation you hardly want there to be any form of disruption that can cause that conversation to cease. As such both parties of the communication - the sender and receiver - are completely unaware that their communication is being intercepted and data is being stolen.
The Electronic Communications Privacy Act
The more closely guarded an asset is the more value it carries, and information in today's digital world is one of the most valuable assets. The amount invested in data security whether in transmission or at rest can equal the value of the data itself. As such governments, departments, organizations, businesses, and individuals, have all been known to be perpetrators as well as victims of this unscrupulous activity. In 1986, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) was passed in the United States. The Act prohibits any third party be it individual, department or government from any unauthorized access to electronic communications.
Governments and security institutions have found it necessary to carry out electronic eavesdropping to combat crime. Though there are many controversies surrounding this practice by law enforcement in the name of security, the fourth amendment of the US provides that people have a right to feel secure in their person's, houses and effects. Therefore, a substantial probable cause has to be established to permit any communication interception. The government of the United States itself cannot be sued under the ECPA but any evidence proved to be gathered illegally is impermissible in court.
Laws: Eavesdropping In Computer Communications
We will look at the US laws on digital eavesdropping in summary. They stipulate the different forms and conditions that constitute prohibited communication interceptions:
1. Some people commit eavesdropping offenses either by using someone else or planting a device and dissociating themselves from it or knowing of a planted device. The law prohibits any person who seeks to or intentionally intercepts another person's communication or the communication of a device, or has knowledge of such a device, be it electronic, audio or wire or otherwise, or seek to use or solicits someone to do the same. (Asking or paying someone to unlawfully source information or position a device makes you equally guilty under the law) This stands true irrespective of the type of device used or its location. As long as it is a medium of transmission, it is prohibited under the law.
This means that if the device used is attached to, or transmits signals through hardware, wire communications, or similar device, it is prohibited. Knowledge of such a perpetrator, or device known to be used and is transmitted interstate or abroad is also punishable by law. The law prohibits the use of such eavesdropping devices on the premises of any business, organization or private property under this section.
2. The law prohibits anyone who obtains or seek to obtain illegally-sourced information from a business or organization, or person whether it is local or foreign, and intentionally, discloses such contents in general or to another person. So, for example, a disgruntled employee may seek someone to broadcast damaging information he has laid his hands on. He may try to sell it to a competitor of the broadcasting house, or journalist. In this case, both the employee and the recipient accomplice will be held liable.
3 In the case of service providers (ISP, mobile operators, broadcasting houses), landlords, or employers, it is NOT illegal when authorized by the court of law or, in the course of his duties, to intercept, disclose or use such communication necessary for the rendition of his services. It is noted that certification in writing or a certified person or warrant is not needed for this service that is required.
4. In the case of individuals or institutions operating public services, it IS prohibited under the law to deliberately divulge the content of such communication while those services are being transmitted to any person or organization other than the intended recipient.
5. In the case of individuals or institution operating public services, it is NOT prohibited under the law to divulge the content of such communication while those services are being transmitted to any person or organization with the consent of the originator.
6. In the case of individuals or institutions operating satellite transmissions, it is NOT an offense under the law to deliberately divulge the content of such communication to a broadcasting station that broadcasts to the public or a sub-carrier intended for re-distribution to the public, except it is to intentionally gain commercial advantage whether directly or indirectly.
Eavesdropping is the unauthorized interception of conversation, communication or digital transmission in real time. They are illegal acts in the world of communications and are therefore punishable by law. These laws that govern computer security cover all forms of communications by governments and individuals. They also cover tools used in interception be it software or hardware. The motives of the crime are a parameter and what the stolen data was used for. Service providers, administrators and those whose line of duty causes them to practice what is technically eavesdropping are exempted. Those who technically eavesdrop but whose actions are part of their line of duty like intermediary technology and re-transmitting bodies are also exempted.
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