Vatican security measures fight temptation to spy on conclave

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

VATICAN CITY -- Computer hackers, electronic bugs and supersensitive microphones threaten to pierce the Vatican's thick walls next week when cardinals gather in the Sistine Chapel to name a papal successor.

Spying has gotten a lot more sophisticated since John Paul was elected in 1978, but the Vatican seems confident it can protect the centuries-old tradition of secrecy that surrounds the gathering.

Vatican security refused to discuss the details of any anti-bugging measures to be used during the conclave. But Giuseppe Mazzullo, a private detective and retired Rome policeman whose former unit worked closely with the Vatican in the past, said the Holy See will reinforce its own experts with Italian police and private security contractors.

"The security is very strict," Mazzullo said. "For people to steal information, it's very, very difficult, if not impossible."

Thousands of reporters will be watching as the 115 cardinals gather next week. Hackers and government informants may also be monitoring the conclave.

The temptations to spy will be immense. The papal election will likely see keen competition, notably between reformers and conservatives. It is also expected to witness a strong push for the first non-European pope.

The Vatican released video Monday of the closed world the cardinals will occupy until they choose a new pope, showing images of their hotel, the Sistine Chapel, the urns where they will place their votes and the stove that will send up smoke to signal that they have elected a new pope.

It also shows images of the round, bronze-rimmed urns where the cardinals will place their votes. Previously, cardinals placed their ballots in a chalice. The video ends with a view of the stove, dusty and full of ashes, where the ballots will be burned.

In 1996, John Paul set down rules to protect cardinals from "threats to their independence of judgment." Cell phones, electronic organizers, radios, newspapers, TVs and recorders were banned.

Hacking cell phones

The ban on cell phones and personal data organizers makes sense, security experts say, since they can be hacked and used to broadcast the proceedings to a listener.

"An eavesdropper can reach into those devices and turn on the microphone and turn it into an eavesdropping device," said James Atkinson, who heads a Gloucester, Mass., company that specializes in bug detection. "It's extraordinarily easy to do."

Another worry for the Vatican will be rooftop snoops with sensitive microphones. Laser microphones can pick up conversations from a quarter-mile away by recording vibrations on window glass or other hard surfaces. The Sistine Chapel has windows set near the roof.

Laser microphones can be thwarted with heavy drapes and by masking conversations with ambient noise.

Tougher to root out are tiny bugs: transmitters or recorders as small as a coin.

To handle those, teams acting on the pope's 1996 orders will need to mount complex sweeps of sensitive meeting areas, taking out carpets, poking through chair cushions, opening heating ducts, testing electrical wiring, light bulbs and water pipes, Atkinson said.

The late pope deemed the threat to the conclave serious enough to decree that those who break their oaths of secrecy can be cast out of the Roman Catholic Church.

But even with precautions, halting a spy inside the Vatican -- perhaps an unwitting one -- is probably the toughest threat to block, experts said.

A spy could import a listening device, or even signal people outside the Vatican by a color-coded message. Atkinson suggested using colored smoke or by flushing dye down a toilet with a discharge pipe that could be monitored elsewhere.

"Are they going to search all the cardinals to see whether someone bugged their spectacles or crucifixes?" asked Giles Ebbut, a surveillance expert with the London consultancy Jane's. "The imagination can run riot."

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