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LEBANON: Alleged Israeli spy had access to 'most significant segment' of cellphone network

June 28, 2010 |  2:22 pm

An alleged Israeli spy arrested by Lebanese Army Intelligence last week had access to the "most significant segment" of one of the only two mobile networks in Lebanon, an industry expert told Babylon & Beyond.

The alleged spy, identified by officials as "Charbel Q," reportedly has confessed to working on behalf of the Israelis since 1996 and may have planted monitoring devices allowing the Israelis to tap directly into the Alfa network, one of the two major cellphone companies operating in Lebanon, according to local media reports (Arabic link).

"There is evidence that the accused, Charbel Q., had ties to Israel," a spokesman for the army confirmed. "The investigation is ongoing, and when it finishes, the matter will be decided according to Lebanese law."

According to one expert, the accused was a transmission officer responsible for maintaining crucial network stations, giving him access to "the most significant segment of the network from an intelligence perspective." Theoretically, the expert said, he could have planted devices that allowed the Israelis to eavesdrop on conversations and track people from their cellphones.

"Mobile technology allows you to mix activities such as location, identification and interception, so it is not a surprise that foreign forces have tried to penetrate these networks," said Riad Bahsoun, an industry expert who works on behalf of the International Telecommunications Union.

The case of Charbel Q has sparked anger and raised tough questions about the vulnerability of the Lebanese phone system and the government's culpability.

When cellphone service first came to Lebanon in 1994, the two networks were divided between foreign companies and powerful Lebanese political families. Even after the networks became state property in 2003, the government continued to lease the rights to foreign companies, eliminating competition and oversight and leaving Lebanese customers with some of the highest-priced cellphone service in the world.

In addition to being a favorite topic of complaint among ordinary Lebanese, the telecommunications sector is also a hot button among politicians. The militant group Hezbollah took up arms in 2008 to defend its terrestrial network, although Hezbollah members use the same mobile networks as the rest of the country.

"If the Mossad really have targeted some users on the [Alfa] network, it means that these people most probably are Hezbollah people," Bahsoun said. "In hindsight, we can say that, yes, Hezbollah people and the resistance were right in building their own secure network, or I don’t know how [the resistance] would still be here."

The arrest of Charbel Q is just the latest in a crackdown by authorities over the last two years that has yielded dozens of suspects and is thought to have dealt a significant blow to Israel's intelligence-gathering capabilities.

Meris Lutz in Beirut


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