Spy computer `trap' probed
August 25, 2000
Rigged software claimed to hack intelligence files
By Valerie Lawton and Allan Thompson
Toronto Star Ottawa Bureau
OTTAWA - The RCMP is conducting a probe related to allegations that foreign spies used rigged software to hack into Canada's top secret intelligence files.
A Star investigation has found the probe revolves around stunning claims that computer software used by the Mounties and Canada's spy service to co-ordinate secret investigations was rigged with a ``trap door'' to allow American and Israeli agents to eavesdrop.
If this proves true, it would be the biggest ever breach of Canada's national security.
Computer experts say a sophisticated trap door - essentially a computer bug - can be impossible to find, even if you know it's there. They can be hidden in either software, as a tiny bit of rogue code, or in the computer's hardware, stored on a microchip.
While Canada already shares a wealth of intelligence information with the U.S. and Israel, there are many elements of Canadian intelligence gathering that the government wouldn't be anxious to share with allies.
`We welcome any credible and serious investigation of this affair.'
Joint owner of Inslaw Inc., the Washington-based company that developed Promis. He refused to say whether the Mounties have contacted him.
That could include economic intelligence on trading partners, detailed information on the whereabouts of terrorism suspects in Canada or strategic information on the positions Canada intends to take in international relations.
The RCMP would not formally confirm the existence of the probe by its National Securities Investigation section.
``I cannot either confirm or deny what you're looking into,'' RCMP spokesperson Sergeant Marc Richer said yesterday.
But sources close to the investigation say it revolves around Promis, a software program first developed to assist prosecutors in the United States Department of Justice. The case management software also has application for intelligence agencies keeping track of surveillance and investigation files.
The Promis software was at the centre of a major U.S. scandal a decade ago.
Bill and Nancy Hamilton, owners of Washington-based Inslaw Inc., the company that developed Promis, caused a sensation when they alleged the U.S. government had stolen their software and pedalled pirated versions to intelligence agencies around the world.
A former Israeli spy also alleged the software had been fitted with an electronic trap door to allow American and Israeli agents to spy on those who used the software.
After a series of contradictory court rulings and investigations, the story dropped out of the headlines years ago. But now, a Star investigation has found that a number of people linked to the Promis affair have been interviewed by RCMP investigators in recent months.
Louis Buffardi, a lawyer who represents an American computer wizard, who claims he helped prepare Promis software for sale to Canada, said his client was interviewed by RCMP officers who said they are probing a possible breach of Canada's national security.
A former stockbroker, John Belton, who lives in Eastern Ontario and has been tracking the Promis case for years, said RCMP investigators have made repeated trips to his home to conduct interviews on the subject.
Another player in the saga, who asked not to be identified, said RCMP investigators have talked to him about their concerns that Canada's national security may have been breached.
Sources said Bill Hamilton was among those interviewed by the RCMP. Reached in Washington yesterday, Hamilton refused to say whether or not the Mounties had talked to him, but said he was glad to hear there was an investigation.
``We welcome any credible and serious investigation of this affair,'' Hamilton said.
The Promis case was never fully resolved in the U.S. but many regard it as the domain of conspiracy theorists.
In 1987, a U.S. court upheld some of the software company's claims of stolen software and found there was evidence the U.S. justice department used ``trickery, fraud and deceit,'' to steal the Promis software from Inslaw Inc.
That ruling was later overturned on procedural grounds. And in 1993, the report of a retired judge hired to probe the matter concluded there was no credible evidence the software had been stolen by the justice department.
(Inslaw's Promis software is still in use in some U.S. prosecutors' offices and available for sale legitimately.)
The Canadian government entered the story - publicly, at least - in 1991.
That's when a federal bureaucrat called Inslaw with a routine request: Was the Promis software, already in use by some government departments, also available in French?
Trouble was, Inslaw hadn't sold its product to anyone in Canada.
Inslaw started asking questions in Ottawa, where officials quickly backtracked. There had been a mix-up, they said, some confusion about the name of the software.
Officials insisted at the time no government department was using Inslaw's Promis.
Yesterday, RCMP Corporal Glen Kibsey refused to comment on whether the RCMP uses Promis software.
A spokesperson for CSIS, the spy service, also refused to comment on what software the agency uses, or the reports of an RCMP investigation.
U.S. embassy spokesperson Buck Shinkman said he was not aware of any RCMP investigation, or any developments in the Promis file.
``I'm unaware of any renewed interest in this story,'' Shinkman said.
A spokesperson at the Israeli embassy could not be reached for comment.
The former Ontario stockbroker involved in Promis affair said he has been interviewed by the Mounties numerous times over the last 18 months.
Belton said RCMP officers told him they are investigating whether the Mounties have Inslaw's Promis software, if it was stolen, and whether the security of the RCMP has been compromised as a result of trap doors in the software.
He said he's aware some people will regard him as someone who lives in a fantasy world of conspiracy theories and spooks.
``You're not dealing with paranoid crazies, or the UFO guys. I'm very serious about this,'' Belton said.
He said the proof that his allegations are being taken seriously is the fact that RCMP investigators have been coming to see him for 1 1/2 years to discuss the evidence he has to offer.
Belton said RCMP officers have already confirmed to him that they do use the Promis software and have told Hamilton his software was in use by the Mounties.
The chainsmoking Belton unraveled his story at the kitchen table of his sprawling, ramshackle house near Ottawa. The table is stacked with thick binders jammed with documents detailing his allegations.
Court documents, detailed notes of telephone conversations and newspaper clippings are marked up with highlighter and neatly organized.
In addition to Belton, an Illinois lawyer representing Riconoscuito - the American computer whiz who has publicly claimed he helped prepare Inslaw's Promis software for sale to Canada in 1983 and 1984 - said in an interview that RCMP investigators talked to his client.
``I was first contacted by the RCMP, oh geez, eight or nine months ago,'' Riconoscuito's lawyer Louis Buffardi said.
Buffardi said the RCMP investigator told him the matter involved a possible breach of Canada's national security.
Police were interested both in going over Riconoscuito's previous claims about his involvement in modifying the Promis software, as well as asking him about some new information, the lawyer said.
``Some of the modifications that I made were specifically designed to facilitate the implementation of Promis with two agencies of Canada: the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service,'' Riconoscuito once said in a sworn affidavit.
Riconoscuito, who is currently being held at a federal prison in Pennsylvania on drug charges, couldn't be reached for comment.
Another player in the saga, who asked not to be identified, also confirmed he has been contacted by RCMP investigators who want to question him about the Promis software.
But another person who sources claimed was on the RCMP interview list - Madison Brewer, who managed the Promis software project at the U.S. Department of Justice in the 1980s - said the allegations were fantasy.
``The people who make these accusations are just crazies,'' said Brewer, insisting he has had no contact with the RCMP.
Brewer said the Promis software wasn't all that it was cracked up to be and that Inslaw fomented the scandal as ``a bunch of public relations crap.''
The lead RCMP investigator working on the file, Sean McDade, was reached by telephone this week but refused to divulge any information about the probe.
``You're putting me in a bad spot here. I can't comment on what's happening right now,'' McDade said.
``There's issues that I am not able to talk about and have nothing to do with what you're probably making inquiries about.
``It's a matter that is under investigation - not that Inslaw is under investigation by any sense, but certain elements have just twigged my interest and that's it. There is no official investigation that I can talk to you about right now.''
McDade also warned reporters to be wary of the web of intrigue surrounding the affair. ``I kind of get a chuckle out of how something so small has been blown out of proportion.''
But a history of Israel's Mossad published last year suggests the software did wind up in Canada.
In his book, Gideon's Spies, Welsh author Gordon Thomas recounts the tale of how Rafi Eitan, former deputy director of operations at Mossad, claimed that both Israel and the United States had sold modified Promis software to other countries through front companies.
Another of the characters linked to the affair is Ari Ben-Menashe, a former Israeli intelligence agent now living in Montreal. He claimed in his book, Profits of War, that he played a role in having a trap door installed in the Promis software, which was then distributed around the world. He wrote that the Americans and the Israelis sold the doctored software to many countries, including Canada, Britain, Australia, South Korea, Iraq, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Nicaragua.
In an interview, Ben-Menashe said Canadian authorities quizzed him about Promis seven years ago in the course of security screening interviews after he applied for Canadian citizenship.
But Ben-Menashe, who now runs a security consulting firm in Montreal, was adamant that he has had no contact with the RCMP in connection with the Promis affair.
While the Promis story line sounds like a Le Carre novel, intelligence experts say it is not entirely implausible that some of Canada's close allies would use software to spy on this country.
Even the RCMP officers investigating the affair use a mysterious electronic mail address to pass messages. The e-mail address includes the word Promis, spelled backwards - simorp.
Experts say a sophisticated trap door can be impossible to find. The trap door code is tucked within hundreds of thousands of lines of programming instructions.
A hacker can activate it with a specific set of key strokes and then use it to download all the information on a database - completely undetected.
A micro-chip trap door would have to be implanted in the computer main frame, likely replacing a chip that's actually supposed to be there.
It allows a hacker to used a modem to dial into the central computer and pull out any interesting information stored there.
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