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Vatican mobilises anti-surveillance op

Multiple e-threats to Pope-vote conclave

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If press reports are to be believed, then next Monday's gathering of cardinals in the Sistine Chapel will represent the biggest counter-surveillance operation since the Posh/Becks royal wedding. Indeed, so busy will the Vatican be blocking laser microphone assault, checking vases of flowers for nanobugs and setting the Swiss Guard on suspicious men using 3G mobes to communicate with circling black helicopters that we very much doubt whether there will be enough time to elect a new Pope between the stripsearches and electromagnetic sweeps.

Of course, there is a certain amount of legitimacy to the idea that some will stop at nothing to eavesdrop on the cardinals' deliberations. The Pope-vote conclave is legendarily secretive. Pope John Paul II tackled the burgeoning technological threat when he introduced rules protecting cardinals from "threats to their independence of judgment", viz; mobile phones, electronic organizers, radios, newspapers and TVs.

However, according to Wired, the Vatican now faces a mutli-pronged techno-assault on the Sistine Chapel. New menaces include - according to Massachusetts security operative James Atkinson - the aforementioned vibration-detecting laser mics and, chillingly, the possibility that a mole might alert the outside world by "using colored smoke or by flushing dye down a toilet with a discharge pipe that could be monitored elsewhere".

The coloured smoke idea has legs, in our opinion. The Vatican has been using it for yonks to let people know the current state of the papal vote - black smoke from the Sistine Chapel chimney means no two-thirds majority has been reached during a round of balloting; white smoke means a majority has determined the next Pope. It would be a small matter indeed for an infiltration team to prepare a further series of fumigatory signals - blue for "they're going to vote for an abortion/contraception hardliner"; red for "brace yourselves, they're lining up a Latin American liberation theologist"; and orange for "step down for an hour, they've just ordered in a Chinese takeaway".

For its part, though, the Vatican reckons it has the security situation under control. Chicago Cardinal Francis George told the press last week: "They've assured us there are ways to block all communications and conversations." Shortly thereafter, cardinals were prohibited from talking to the media at all, thereby proving his point.

Mercifully, there are voices of sanity amid the speculationfest hubbub. Surveillance expert Giles Ebbut told Wired: "Are they going to search all the cardinals to see whether someone bugged their spectacles or crucifixes? The imagination can run riot."

Yes it can. We just hope the Vatican's e-security directorate has covered the threat of WLAN wardrive attack by satellite-based space hackers. You can't be too too careful. ®

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