In Russia, the boss is always listening—even to your mobile phone calls
Russian technology lets employers listen to cell calls “A hot ticket for any company seeking to protect” secrets
Ever sought a bit of privacy by stepping away from your desk to make a personal call on your cell phone? Soon, that may not be enough to prevent the boss from listening in, at least not in Russia. A Moscow security company has developed technology that lets employers eavesdrop on cell calls made on their premises. InfoWatch says the product is legal in Russia, and it’s scouting for other markets where banks, government agencies, or anyone else trying
to prevent leaks of confidential information would be allowed to employ it. “These technologies have been used by secret services or the military in certain countries,” says Natalya Kaspersky, chief executive officer of InfoWatch. “Our breakthrough is in applying them for corporate security.”
In some places, InfoWatch and its clients risk lawsuits from workers who’d balk at the idea of the boss monitoring their calls, says Petr Gorodetskiy, an analyst at researcher Gartner. “This technology may become a hot ticket for any company seeking to protect its commercial secrets,” he says. “But it can’t be rolled out in markets where it may trigger court claims.”
InfoWatch says the technology doesn’t compromise privacy because initial screening is done by computers that analyze and scan calls for keywords. Security personnel only get involved if there’s cause for concern, the company says. InfoWatch already sells software for monitoring other communication channels—landline phones, e-mail, messaging apps— to customers such as Russian wireless carrier VimpelCom, Austria’s Raiffeisen Bank International, and oil giant Gazprom. The company’s revenue reached 1.1 billion rubles ($17 million) last year, mostly from its Traffic Monitor service, a basic version of which costs $3,000 to install on as many as 100 computers.
That product lets companies vet information transmitted via corporate e-mail, file-sharing applications, instant messages, and Skype, and it can track what gets stored on USB sticks or other removable media. The company says it can even intercept encrypted messages from services such as WhatsApp and Telegram, but it declines to give details. “Our only loophole has been voice traffic on mobile phones—we didn’t monitor that,” says Kaspersky, who co-founded Russian antivirus company Kaspersky Lab in 1997 but left it in 2007 after splitting up with husband Eugene Kaspersky. As part of the split, she got control of InfoWatch, originally a unit of Kaspersky Lab.
The mobile monitoring technology works in conjunction with a device that amplifies wireless calls inside
buildings and hands them off to the broader network outside. Using software originally developed for the Soviet-era KGB, the device can convert calls in 35 languages into text and search for words such as, say, “brokerage account” or “share offering”— though there’s no reason it couldn’t also search for “football,” “sex,” or anything else. If a suspicious phrase is found, the text fragment gets sent to the client’s security department.
Stefano Zanero, a professor at the Polytechnic University of Milan who specializes in cybersecurity, cautions that besides being illegal in many countries, the heart of the service may not be reliable. “The part that puzzles me is how successful speech recognition, transcription, and automated analysis of texts can be,” Zanero says. “I don’t think this can be very accurate.”
InfoWatch says it has preorders from companies in Indonesia, and that others in Russia, other former Soviet countries, and the Middle East have expressed interest. Two of its customers are testing the prototype, and the final product is slated for release by yearend. The company hasn’t yet set a price. In the small but growing market for data-leak prevention—set to exceed $1 billion by 2020, according to Gartner—InfoWatch faces formidable rivals such as Symantec and
Raytheon, which offer monitoring systems for corporate data networks.
Kaspersky acknowledges that Western Europe may be a challenge because of legal obstacles and privacy concerns. But in Russia and many other countries, workers often sign agreements allowing employers to monitor their activities at work, she says. In May, Russia’s central bank started recommending that banks monitor employees’ personal mobile phone calls at work along with e-mails, instant messages, and removable media. “Ignoring this channel of potential data leaks— after we’ve got all other channels under control—would be unprofessional,” Kaspersky says. “And we are professionals.”
The bottom line A spinoff of Russian security company Kaspersky Lab has developed technology that lets employers listen in on mobile phone calls.