WHILE the thaw in East-West relations may signal to some that the cold war has ended, spying on facsimile communications, especially in the area of industrial espionage, is heating up. The espionage efforts of the Soviet Union have been given a major boost by the rise in faxes, says Desmond Ball, head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at Australia National University.
``Since most people do not encrypt their faxes, normal communications, blueprints, and company documents are all pretty accessible,'' Mr. Ball says. He estimates that the Soviets are intercepting 100 percent of the facsimile traffic in many regions of the world.
Ball is an international expert on signals intelligence (SIGINT). In the past two years, his research has been the primary source of public information in Australia on the jointly run Australia-United States spy-satellite communication facilities. Now he's published two books and a research paper on Soviet SIGINT operations which, Ball says, are ``the most extensive and most comprehensive'' of any nation.
The US SIGINT program employs about 65,000 people. But Ball and other intelligence experts estimate the Soviets have almost five times as many people working on signals intelligence. Some are trained electronic eavesdroppers stationed in diplomatic facilities and about 450 listening posts in the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries. Many more are analysts employed to sift through the intercepted communications.
``The whole area of Soviet external intelligence collection has increased quite dramatically in the last three to five years,'' Ball says.
The restructuring of the KGB, the Soviet secret police, and a substantial boost in funding to the GRU, the military intelligence organization, has doubled the Soviets' covert activity.
Ball bases this estimate on indicators such as a rise in SIGINT staffing (partly to intercept fax traffic), the number of spies arrested, an increase in blackmail cases, and the number of people reporting being approached by the Soviets to be recruited for espionage.
Ball gives two reasons for the surge in spy activities. First, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev may have given the KGB the green light for increasing foreign spying as a trade-off for curbing its domestic activities. Second, the political success of perestroika (restructuring) depends partly on producing economic results. Stealing commercial secrets, which has ``increased dramatically,'' Ball says, can provide shortcuts.
He says the number of KGB and GRU agents in Southeast Asia has doubled in the last several years.
One of the aims of Ball's research is to educate the public about the magnitude of Soviet SIGINT activities. Protecting communications is relatively easy. Many businesses are unaware of the spying going on, he says.
In addition, many governmental departments don't take precautions when transmitting data because their own intelligence organizations have kept them in the dark about foreign-espionage capabilities, according to Ball.