Brazil Learns How to Tame the Wiretap Under the Rule of Law

EavesdroppingWhen it hears certain notes from the “white-bellied go-away” bird (Corythaixoides leucogaster), a small African antelope (Madoque guenthery), is more likely to run for shelter, stop grazing, turn its head, or even start watching its surroundings.

At risk of falling prey to predators, the small solitary and monogamous antelope weighing less than 20 pounds seems to have developed, even without social skills or an equivalent means of communications, a form of interceptive listening for a special meaning (eavesdropping) from that other animal species.

In English, the meaning of the word eavesdropping corresponds, in its current use, to the metaphoric-pragmatic use of the term “grampo” (wiretap) in Portuguese… It is the generic case of the “unintended listener”. (1)

Investigating implies actively searching for specific facts under the applicable legal standards that make them incompatible with social life under the Democratic State of Law aegis. Investigating, in this context (and the word investigate has other meanings, including in science…) is, then, to determine the authorship and facts pertaining to the offense. That is, to determine who are the criminals, how, when, and where they acted, and doing what.

This has become a hot topic in Brazil in 2008, for the profiles of the alleged criminals so identified and for the types of crimes they committed (potentially damaging for the Government and the Nation in general), not forgetting methods used (the “how”), usually rather sophisticated, the so-called modus operandi.

Finding the facts and authorship of classic offenses, such as the thousands or even millions of petty thefts committed by mankind traditionally, goes almost unnoticed, since these are misdemeanors of “small criminals” that are facetiously and classically pointed out by society as “lowlife” crimes…

Those were not, obviously, the types of criminals behind the Brazilian scandals in 2008. The “outrageous” 21st century criminal, here and everywhere else, is the one that supposedly wears the proverbial and respected “white collar.”

All this is strongly related to a word, written and spoken numerous times by the media and the Brazilian people: “wiretap” (grampo). The wiretap – today no more than an anachronical metaphor, used to materialize as something – a “wiretap” – the old process that physically interfered with a telephone line (when it was basically a metal wire stretched between posts) extracting conversations containing “narratives of facts” (truthful or not, maybe even “manufactured by the wiretapper”…).

However, the wiretap is a painful stigma for the nation. In other times, it would have served systematically as an instrument of violation of individual rights and warranties, now diligently monitored and protected by law, protected not only in the legal sphere but also in the collective moral conscience, under a common “national sense”, whose violation is severely condemned and punished by criminal law enforcement in a modern democratic nation like 2009 Brazil.

The process under which this might still happen, now only in the name of issues that are relevant for the nation and under strict legal control, has changed significantly. It is even ruled through a specific regulation. However, knowingly or not, the Brazilian people still refer to the old process – the “wiretap” – as it still exists. Not quite so… It is so different today, in terms of quality, that its “scope breadth” brings new thoughts, including whether it is today, as in the past, an accessory or has become the most primary aspect of modern police investigation…

The big question is that the technological advances of the last few decades brought such changes to what information can be attained from listening to a conversation that the metaphoric concept of the “old wiretap” has been lost… It is like trying to imagine “navigation” under the 1509, 16th century, Atlantic Ocean scenario in comparison with the cybernetic concept of the 2009, 21st century, world wide web “navigation”. It took five centuries for this change in the idea of “navigating”, but today it may take no more than five months or even five weeks for new types and modes of “wiretapping” to appear…

Conversation listening in telecommunications (more precisely, in telematics according to today’s technological jargon), in the times of the world wide web – www – includes satellite positioning systems, image, voice, and data digital transmission protocols, human identification computer systems (facial and eye biometrics, among others), and criminal profiling (computational statistics applied to different information technologies including geographic information systems such as “criminal mapping”).

Criminal Profiling (CP) with its Link Analyses (LA) and the extremely modern Voice Biometrics (VB) may form the trilogy of what is the most emblematic aspect of the true technological revolution that the old “wiretap” concept went through and modern criminal investigations to uncover the authorship and facts of offenses, ranging from the most simple (such as petty theft) to the most complex (such as tax evasion and funds transfers…).

Due to its complexity and “real time” results, criminal investigation activities, including CP, LA, and VB, involve multidisciplinary teams that include systems analysts, database specialists, and criminal investigators with solid knowledge of classical investigation methods, using and constantly adapting all this at a “technological tempo” that criminals cannot (at least yet…) conceive and overcome, except with the connivance – formal or informal – of the State itself through its personnel. The 2008 scandals came from these significant advances on the investigations conducted on today’s transnational criminal organizations environment, which includes Brazil.

From the most basic improvements to investigational techniques and continents (databases that still perform old functions but now as “automated agencies”) to the application of the most state-of-the-art “visual information analysis” software, today’s criminal investigators have been successful in solving cases that would have been otherwise incomprehensible and unsolvable with the classical investigation tools available until recently.

This is due to the modern complex “Information Society” world that allows thousands or even millions of variables to be involved in the perpetration of today’s felonies. It is precisely this use of cutting edge technology as an ally of public safety that has made it possible to control complex and sophisticated activities of a seemingly powerful organized crime, first by using CP/LA software created in the early 90s, now considered indispensable and trivial by thousand of criminal investigation organizations.

For reasons no different from those discussed here, today’s society finds itself “pacifically invaded” by private companies today, as personal information, previously hard or even impossible to obtain, is discovered and questioned in routine telemarketing inquiries…

The “raw materials” of knowledge used in criminal investigations can often be freely in the hands of private companies even before they reach public officers, criminally liable for unauthorized searches for that same knowledge, this time in the interest of the State…

This is how, with the significant increase of the volume of data to be analyzed (by any sector of society), often a result of the growing number of existing databases many times located in different places within the “global community”, some situations that still need to be addressed in the “knowledge discovery” process of the 21st century become clear (both of public and private interest):

(i) Information stored under different database management technologies; (ii) content from diversified information sources; (iii) duplication of data initially stored in different databases such as names, telephone numbers, and vehicle license plates; and, among other variables, (iv) diversity of information systems, accessible in different formats, creating, for example, delays and difficulty in obtaining the desired information.

A result of a criminal conjuncture that is dynamic in its articulation and always quick to act, new software (computer applications) is being developed to meet common needs of criminal investigators worldwide, precisely to meet tactical and operational requirements that are critical to solve new and increasingly complex cases.

For example, it is possible today, using some state-of-the-art technological tools, to promptly access and analyze information located anywhere in the world, regardless of the specific database technology used.

For obvious reasons, the legal aspects of such operations must be handled in the corresponding government instances, something that is becoming an increasingly frequent topic for controversy and heated political and ideological discussions.  The “Big Brother” – a fictional entity that knows everyone’s “deeper secrets” according to George Orwell’s work conceived back in 1949 but named in the far year of “1984” – futurology has become a topic of television triviality…

What is under discussion now, no longer in the fiction literature realm, but in institutions as real as the Brazilian Parliament and its Inquiry Commissions, is the regulation of a society so vulnerable to transparency, of which criminal investigations are part.

The big question is the transparency that crime has attained with government authorities… Transparency, a highly important term in politics, as mentioned so many times worldwide by Mikhail Gorbachev, last Secretary-General of the Soviet Union Communist Party’s Central Committee, who used it relentlessly in his political discourse:  “glasnost.”

Transparency, in public safety, is more and more an ineluctable fact. This transparency, feared by many, starts with human identification to determine, “among some humans”, those that insist on transgress against the rest of humankind.

The increasingly precise possibility of human identification, starting with papiloscopy (Alphonse Bertillon, France, 1853-1914) and photography (Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, France, 1787-1851), both still during the first half of the 19th century, has today, more than 150 years later, its “State-of-the-art” in Voice Biometrics.

This technique, a little newer than the genetic fragment technique, or DNA (Allec Jeffreys, United Kingdom, 1950), which has barely begun to be understood and incorporated to modern criminology’s “arsenal”, only began in 1984.

Just to illustrate the importance of this type of tool, Colombian drug lord Juan Carlos Ramirez Abadia, arrested in São Paulo in August 2008, could only be identified by his voice, since he had been through several plastic surgeries that significantly changed his original facial features.

For some, however, all this seems to be like “all hell broke loose”. Maybe so, but only for some… As Microsoft’s CEO, Bill Gates, would say, “The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second rule is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”

Good for some, very bad for some others (so what…). However, distinguishing one thing from another, making the right choices may be great for Brazil and its law enforcement institutions!
Special thanks to “Tempo Real Tecnologias de Informação” for making a descriptive portfolio and the corresponding contents available for research, more specifically Link Analysis (LA) and Voice Biometrics (VB).

(1) Citation referring to a text translated from English into Portuguese (free translation) of the work by Amanda J. Lea, June P. Barrera, Lauren M. Tom and Daniel T. Blumstein. “Heterospecific Eavesdropping in a Nonsocial Species.” Behavioral Ecology 19 (5) (2008): 1041-1046.

George Felipe de Lima Dantas, who has a PhD from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., is a consultant in Public Security Matters in Brasília, Brazil. He can be contacted at


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