fbi, cia, can you confirm?
December 9, 2010 8:29 AM   Subscribe

Are either my cell phone or my dad's landline being tapped?

Lately, I've noticed some weird sounds when calling my dad. When I speak, I here some static. When he's speaking, I don't hear any static. I feel like sometimes I hear occasional muffled clicks. The last time I spoke with him (a couple of days ago), there was a short, weird and loud scrambling sound, that I've never heard before on the phone, on any phone, ever before. We both heard it and were like "WTF was that??"

I don't experience any of this when calling anyone else - only my dad. It's definitely not cell phone reception - i've noticed it no matter where I am when I call, and only when speaking to him.

My dad's already a little paranoid, so I don't want to freak him out. So I haven't asked him if he's experienced this speaking with anyone else. He's a very law abiding guy, but since 9/11, has been worried about discrimination because of his background - a US immigrant from Pakistan. However, he's been in the US for 45 years and a naturalized citizen for most of that. But he has the most ubiquitous Muslim name, which every once in a while, worries him that people will judge him because of it. He's very by the book - as am I (except for that speeding ticket or two from years ago), and have absolutely no reason to suspect why either of us would have our phones tapped. My dad is in no way a fundy - by Muslim (and even non-Muslim) standards, he's very granola liberal. But stuff like this has me worried that perfectly mundane and even boring people with Muslimish names and backgrounds might be having their privacy violated.

Am I paranoid? What does it sound like when your phone is tapped?
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Modern celphones are nearly impossible to tap, so that's unlikely.

Does your dad have a cordless telephone? There could be local interference around his house. Given modern technologies, I doubt a 'tapper' would risk equipment that adds a whole lot of noise on the line, unless I get tinfoil-hatty and say, that's what they want you to think!. Have your dad try a different physical phone or switch to a corded phone, try a different phone outlet in a different room, have the phone company check his lines, and do some visual checks of the places where the lines are connected (the patchbox where the phoneline comes into the house, the in-house disconnect if he's got one, etc.).
posted by AzraelBrown at 8:37 AM on December 9, 2010

Is it possible that someone is picking up on an extension at your Dad's house and listening in like your mom or a sibling?
posted by AugustWest at 8:39 AM on December 9, 2010

Cheap landline phones are usually the source of lots of problems especially when they are cordless. Cordless phones can be "tapped" and can receive interference. I would recommend getting him a new phone for Christmas or maybe hire a phone technician to redo the inside line in his house. Maybe mice are nibbling at the cables?
posted by JJ86 at 8:54 AM on December 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Well, I can add two relevant anecdotes here:

First, my parents phone was actually tapped. As in, they received a formal letter afterwards stating that their phone had been tapped and why it was done. I'd rather not go into more details but for your purposes, I will add that they never noticed a thing. Certainly no unsual sounds on the line, ever.

Second. Phew. Over a year ago, while calling my parents I noticed unusual static on the line. They said they heard it occassionally when talking to other people as well. They called the phone company to complain. The phone company came out, found that a phone wire leading into the house was frayed, fixed it and now the static is gone.
posted by vacapinta at 8:55 AM on December 9, 2010 [3 favorites]

It seems pretty unlikely that either of you are being monitored, and I have no knowledge of modern phone tapping equipment and techniques but I doubt they are likely to have that sort of effect on the call quality. However, since it's not impossible to imagine how a very tenuous link (business ties, member of the same mosque, etc.) to the subject of an investigation could conceivably involve you in such a thing, I came here to add that you and your father have the right to request information the government has on you through the FOIA and Privacy Act. I have no idea how likely that is to actually work in the current political environment, but the ACLU might be a good resource if you begin to seriously suspect you are being monitored.

If some noise on your father's landline calls is your only indication, though, I wouldn't worry about it very much. Phone lines are noisy sometimes.
posted by dreadpiratesully at 8:59 AM on December 9, 2010

Modern technologies for tapping do it without giving you any sign what so ever that you're being tapped. With landlines the noise used to come from the voltage drop whenever the tap was being used but they pretty quickly worked out that you could power the tap externally and avoid that.

I haven't heard about it for digital lines (it's been awhile*) but I wouldn't expect them to be tipping off people like those incidents back in the day. I would expect it to be easier now actually since the data can just be copied as you talk. Placing the tap could be tricky severing fiber, lines, etc. but once in place it should be silent.

Try a new cellphone before you consider any other explanations. It sounds to me like your cell's microphone is picking up background noise when you are talking, and possibly interference from some other device. Are you using an external mic?

JJ86 is right about the landline phones too. Wireless networks work on the same 2.4GHz that many cordless phones do, and I've heard microwaves put out a lot of interference on that frequency as well. I switched to 5.8 for those reasons alone.

* No, I didn't place the taps, work for law enforcement, etc. I just knew a guy who did.
posted by jwells at 8:59 AM on December 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

From the details you gave about you and your father, it's (unfortunately) perfectly possible that his phone or your phone (or certain conversations between you) are being tapped. My guess would be that it's quite unlikely, but it's possible. However, if it is, that probably has nothing to do with the poor reception and interference you get from time to time - modern surveillance techniques aren't going to lead to you hearing someone breathing on the line or even interference or something like that. Seems far more likely that your dad just has a crappy phone or line problems, especially if he is using a cordless phone at all.
posted by iknowizbirfmark at 9:03 AM on December 9, 2010

There are so many factors to consider - the quality of the telephone, whether or not it's a cordless phone or not, the telephone company, geographic location, quality of service, physical issues in the house itself - and then there is your own cell phone service.

Phones being tapped seems like the least likely explanation.

Why don't you buy your father a new phone for Christmas. See if that changes things.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:05 AM on December 9, 2010

Modern taps are inaudible. The noises have a different cause.
posted by aramaic at 9:07 AM on December 9, 2010

And the reason that modern taps are inaudible is that the modern phone network is digital. When the police get a tap, the tap is simply software that makes a copy of the numbers representing your call, running at the central office serving your phone number. The software is built into the digital switches that run the telephone network and is activated by the telephone company upon a court order.
posted by kindall at 9:16 AM on December 9, 2010

The exact same thing was happening to me. Turns out my phone line had been knocked loose and was 'rubbing' against the other lines. Took the repair man about 15 minutes to fix it and it didn't cost me a cent.
posted by TooFewShoes at 9:39 AM on December 9, 2010

This used to happen whenever I called my mom. Her phone was plugged into a 25 year old answering machine that, once replaced, seemed to be the problem.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 2:20 PM on December 9, 2010

I don't think your father is being monitored, because what are the chances that they would choose to tap his phone at the same time he is on the phone. I don't know if they have that kind of timing. (Then again, they probably do, so I may have said something dumb there.)

Back in the past when my family had older phones (around 2000 or so), I would be on a phone call with my parents or sister at home and would notice that static-like sound in the background (thinking they were outside). That phone had a low frequency of like 900MHz if I can remember correctly.

As others have mentioned, it might be the cordless phone he is using. Or if he is on a corded phone, the wire may be old and weak. The kitchen phone that we still use today tends to crackle very lightly or very violently to the point of embarrassment.
posted by jwmollman at 7:24 PM on December 27, 2010

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