In what is being labeled a “wake-up call” to anyone using a pager to send messages, federal authorities on Wednesday charged that a news bulletin service for the New York area media was tapping into beeper transmissions by the police, emergency crews and even the mayor’s office.
“This case gives new meaning to the phrase ‘I spy,’ ” said Manhattan U.S. Atty. Mary Jo White.
Three people and the news service, called Breaking News Network of Fort Lee, N.J., were charged with mail fraud, conspiracy and violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.
White said the case is the first prosecution of interceptions of messages sent to pagers. She said the arrests should alert those using paging systems that “your communications may not be secure . . . . No governmental agency or business is immune from this illegal monitoring.”
Police, accustomed to the media and private citizens using scanners to monitor their radio transmissions, in recent years have begun sending sensitive messages on so-called alphanumeric pagers. New York police first learned that those messages were being monitored when they received two anonymous letters last spring. The letters, quoted in part in the complaint, said a “computer wizard and hacker” had been “bragging” that he could intercept private pages being sent to the city’s top officials.
A two-month investigation led to the arrests of the alleged hacker and two officials of Breaking News Network. The computer expert, Jeffrey R. Moss, 25, turned himself into authorities in Florida and could not be reached for comment. Steven Gessman, 37, an owner of BNN, and Vinnie Martin, 41, BNN’s manager, were released on $50,000 bail each.
As they left the courthouse, Gessman and Martin each said that they were not guilty of the charges. Gessman said that about 10 law enforcement agents arrived at his suburban home Wednesday in a display of force that “humiliated me and embarrassed me in front of the neighbors.”
The two BNN executives said they planned to hold a press conference to address the charges, probably today.
White and other officials said that the news service was used by about 3,000 clients, including some of New York’s top radio and television stations, which are believed to pay at least $80 a month. Ironically, clients were notified of the news by beeper messages.
White said that police did not expect to arrest any media clients of BNN unless they “knew everything that was going on there.”
BNN had recently built a reputation for giving its news media clients solid leads, including an alert when a Brooklyn apartment was being stormed for bomb-making equipment, news about police officers being disciplined or suspended, and even word of the death of a relative of one top official.
As a result, some journalists grumbled that the crackdown was part of a larger effort by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and his allies to exert more control over the New York area media.
“It just means that now they’ll have time to secure the crime scene before we get there,” said Peter Moses of WWOR-TV in Secaucus, N.J.
But others said that BNN was little more than a tip service. The Associated Press’ New York City bureau chief, Sam Boyle, said that the service monitored the city’s many police radios and beeped clients with news about anything that might look interesting. “It all had to be checked out before it could be used,” he said.
City Police Commissioner Howard Safir said that as a result of the interceptions, the city has changed its private communication system. He declined to say exactly how the new system works, but he added that BNN’s alleged interceptions had not “compromised” the city’s police work.
The New York police investigation, carried out in conjunction with the U.S. Secret Service and other federal agencies, was dubbed Operation Pagergate by authorities.
According to the complaint, Moss “voluntarily” outlined for detectives how he intercepted the messages from a computer set-up at home.
The complaint said that Moss “cloned” pagers used by officials and employed “message tracker” software to monitor transmissions. Thus, when the police chief received a page about a certain case, so, allegedly, did Moss and BNN through the cloned pager.
White and other federal officials said that it is illegal for anyone not authorized by law, such as police officers, to purchase the software that can monitor pagers. If convicted, each defendant faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count.
Brian Gimlett, the Secret Service agent in charge of a national investigation into what he called “electronic peeping Toms,” said that investigators in the New York area expected other individuals to be arrested soon in the pager case.
He said that since February 1995, about 35 investigators from various federal and local law enforcement agencies have been looking at various spying devices being sold illegally in the U.S., including those that can monitor alphanumeric pages.
“You can be sure that if it’s here in New York, it’s probably available elsewhere in the country,” he said.
Special correspondent Lisa Meyer contributed to this story.