King to probe release of 9/11 pager messages

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) during a news conference

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (June 9, 2009) (Credit: AP)

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Concerned about the release of 500,000 intercepted pager messages from Sept. 11, 2001, Rep. Peter King said he plans to have his Washington staff begin a preliminary investigation.

"It does raise security issues, and we will look into it in Washington," King (R-Seaford), the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Homeland Security, said Friday.

The messages were compiled by the Web site WikiLeaks.org, a worldwide group that acquires information and releases it to the public. The Web site said the archives of pager messages were released to help "lead to a nuanced understanding of how this event led to death, opportunism and war."

No one at WikiLeaks could be reached for comment at various numbers listed for the group.

WikiLeaks did not disclose how the messages were intercepted. But the fact that so many could be collected did not surprise some computer experts.

"All pager traffic is non-encrypted," said Phil Lieberman, president of Lieberman Software Corp. of Los Angeles. "The fact that people are intercepting the traffic is not surprising."

Most pager users either don't need to intercept the traffic or do not have the expertise to do so, Lieberman said.

But clearly, those with the right technology can accomplish it. Literature of one pager company acknowledges that an experienced person with sophisticated equipment can break into the data transmitted for pagers.

Eugene Spafford, a Duke University professor who specializes in computer sciences, said it was unclear exactly how the WikiLeaks materials were originally compiled and given to the organization.

"They could have fell into the hands of somebody who decided to post it," Spafford said.

Lieberman believes the fact that many of the messages appeared to come from the Wall Street area is an indication that pager traffic there is monitored.

"Given the high value of the traffic on Wall Street and One WTC [World Trade Center], pager interception complexity and physical proximity are not a problem for someone looking to get a leg up on the financial system," Lieberman said in a follow-up e-mail.

"The warnings to users of text messaging and pagers is that there should be no expectation of privacy and that everything they are sending will be potentially available to their rivals in real time," he added.

Lieberman pointed out that users of government pagers who have high security needs already use encryption technology, but fire, police and emergency units don't need that for their daily uses.

One privacy lesson in the WikiLeaks disclosure is that high-tech communications gadgets create information that can surface years later, Spafford said. Nothing is private, he emphasized.

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