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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bugging Key in Hostage Battle

VedomostiSecurity officials can listen in on uncoded conversations.
Notice a little exclamation mark or an open padlock on the display panel of your mobile phone over the weekend?

That was your handset telling you that your provider had stopped encrypting your conversations and text messages.

Mobile users reported seeing those symbols shortly after Chechen guerrillas took theatergoers hostage late Wednesday and reported those symbols disappearing not long after the 58-hour ordeal ended early Saturday.

Publicly, cellular operators won't admit that they shutdown their encryption systems at the request of federal security services to help them eavesdrop on targeted subjects during the standoff. But that's because they are forbidden to do so by law.

Privately, however, it is no secret that they did. But that, too, is because they are obliged to do so legally if requested.

According to the terms of their licenses, which are granted by the Communications Ministry, each cellular, fixed-line and paging operator is required to assist the security services in their operations if asked, said Yevgeny Itsikson, chief editor of Sotovik, a web site that studies the cellular phone market.

Once encoding is switched off, law enforcement officials can listen in on conversations under a regulation called SORM, which stands for Sistema Operativno-Rozysknykh Meropriyatii, or System for Operational-Investigative Activities.

Moscow's three largest cellular operators -- Vimpelcom, Mobile TeleSystems and Megafon -- said they are not allowed, under the terms of their license, to disclose any information about their cooperation with law enforcement bodies.

Vimpelcom spokesman Mikhail Umarov, for example, would only say: "We have done everything necessary to assist the security services according to [SORM]."

Both Vimpelcom and MTS on Thursday released statements saying they were taking "measures" to increase network capacity.

And on Monday, MTS spokeswoman Yeva Prokofyeva said that encoding was switched off "to increase the capacity of the network in the district surrounding the theater" -- a statement Itsikson categorically dismissed.

"Encoding systems have nothing to do with the number of voice channels available," Itsikson said.

It may never be known to what extent officers and agents utilized the window of opportunity, but it is clear is that hi-tech consumerism played a key role in resolving an old-fashioned hostage-taking inspired by a centuries-old conflict.

Moscow has gone from zero to 40 percent mobile penetration in just over 10 years, and reports from people involved in the ordeal suggest that the percentage was even higher among the hostages and hostage-takers, who allowed their victims to make numerous calls.

U.S. cable news station MSNBC quoted anonymous security officials involved in the crisis as saying that when President Vladimir Putin on Thursday declared that "foreign terrorist centers" were aiding the rebels, he was relying on information obtained by agents eavesdropping on their conversations.

MSNBC also reported that security officials credited the success of the raid on the bugging of the hostages' phone conversations, which gave them a clear idea of where the rebels were located inside the three-story theater and how extensive their arsenal was.

"The phones were our little secret," one official was quoted as saying.

"And through [listening in on] them we knew everything that was going on inside."