Covert listening device

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Listening devices of the East German security services. MfS wanzen.jpg
Listening devices of the East German security services.

A covert listening device, more commonly known as a bug or a wire, is usually a combination of a miniature radio transmitter with a microphone. The use of bugs, called bugging, or wiretapping is a common technique in surveillance, espionage and police investigations.


Self-contained electronic covert listening devices came into common use with intelligence agencies in the 1950s, when technology allowed for a suitable transmitter to be built into a relatively small package. By 1956, the US Central Intelligence Agency was designing and building "Surveillance Transmitters" that employed transistors, which greatly reduced the size and power consumption. An all solid-state device had low enough power needs that it could be operated by small batteries, which revolutionized the business of covert listening.

A bug does not have to be a device specifically designed for the purpose of eavesdropping. For instance, with the right equipment, it is possible to remotely activate the microphone of cellular phones, even when a call is not being made, to listen to conversations in the vicinity of the phone. [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6]


Among the earliest covert listening devices used in the United States of America was the dictograph, an invention of Kelley M. Turner patented in 1906 (US Patent US843186A). It consisted of a microphone in one location and a remote listening post with a speaker that could also be recorded using a phonograph. While also marketed as a device that allowed broadcasting of sounds, or dictating text from one room to a typist in another, it was used in several criminal investigations. [7] [8]

A wire

A "wire" is a device that is hidden or concealed under a person's clothes for the purpose of covertly listening to conversations in proximity to the person wearing the "wire". Wires are typically used in police sting operations in order to gather information about suspects. [9]

The act of "wearing a wire" refers to a person knowingly recording the conversation or transmitting the contents of a conversation to a police listening post. Usually, some sort of device is attached to the body in an inconspicuous way, such as taping a microphone wire to their chest. Undercover agents "wearing a wire" is a typical plot element in gangster and police-related movies and television shows. A stereotypical scene might include an individual being suspected by criminals of "wearing a wire", resulting in their tearing the suspect's shirt open to reveal the deception. [10]

When infiltrating a criminal organization a mole may be given a "wire" to wear under their clothes. The wire device transmits to a remote location where law enforcement agents monitor what is being said. Wearing a wire is viewed as risky since discovery could lead to violence against the mole or other retaliatory responses. [11]

Remotely activated mobile phone microphones

Mobile phone (cell phone) microphones can be activated remotely, without any need for physical access. [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [12] This "roving bug" feature has been used by law enforcement agencies and intelligence services to listen in on nearby conversations. [13] A United States court ruled in 1988 that a similar technique used by the FBI against reputed former Gulfport, Mississippi, cocaine dealers after having obtained a court order was permissible. [14] Not only microphones but also seemingly innocuous motion sensors, which can be accessed by third-party apps on Android and iOS devices without any notification to the user, are a potential eavesdropping channel in smartphones. [1]

Automobile computer systems

In 2003, the FBI obtained a court order to surreptitiously listen in on conversations in a car through the car's built-in emergency and tracking security system. A panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals prohibited the use of this technique because it involved deactivating the device's security features. [15] [16]

Audio from optical sources

A laser microphone can be used to reconstruct audio from a laser beam shot onto an object in a room, or a window.

Researchers have also prototyped a method for reconstructing audio from video of thin objects that can pick up sound vibrations, such as a houseplant or bag of potato chips. [17]

Examples of use

Listening devices and the UK law

The use of listening devices is permitted under UK law providing that they are used in compliance with Data Protection and Human Rights laws. If a government body or organisation intends to use listening or recording devices they must follow the laws put in place by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). It is usually permitted to record audio covertly in a public setting or one's own home.

It is illegal to use listening or recording devices that are not permitted for public use. Individuals may only use listening or recording devices within reasonable privacy laws for legitimate security and safety reasons. Many people use listening devices in their own property to capture evidence of excessive noise in a neighbour complaint, which is legal in normal circumstances. [34]

It is legal to use listening or recording devices in public areas, in an office or business area, or in one's own home. Many people use listening devices to record evidence or to take notes for their own reference. [34]

Illegal use of listening and recording devices

It is illegal to use listening devices on certain Military band and Air Band UHF and FM frequencies - people in the past who have not followed this law have been fined over £10,000. This is because the use of a radio transmission bug that transmits on restricted frequencies contravenes the Telecommunications Act and is illegal. It is also against the law to place a listening or recording device in someone else's home. Due to privacy and human rights laws, using a listening or recording device to intrude on the reasonable expectation of privacy of an individual is highly illegal, i.e. placing gadgets in someone's home or car to which one does not have permitted access, or in a private area such as a bathroom.

See also

Related Research Articles

<i>The Conversation</i> 1974 US mystery thriller film by Francis Ford Coppola

The Conversation is a 1974 American mystery thriller film written, produced, and directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, Harrison Ford, Teri Garr, and Robert Duvall. The film revolves around a surveillance expert and the moral dilemma he faces when his recordings reveal a potential murder.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Surveillance</span> Monitoring something for the purposes of influencing, protecting, or suppressing it

Surveillance is the monitoring of behavior, many activities, or information for the purpose of information gathering, influencing, managing or directing. This can include observation from a distance by means of electronic equipment, such as closed-circuit television (CCTV), or interception of electronically transmitted information like Internet traffic. It can also include simple technical methods, such as human intelligence gathering and postal interception.

Telephone tapping is the monitoring of telephone and Internet-based conversations by a third party, often by covert means. The wire tap received its name because, historically, the monitoring connection was an actual electrical tap on the telephone line. Legal wiretapping by a government agency is also called lawful interception. Passive wiretapping monitors or records the traffic, while active wiretapping alters or otherwise affects it.

Computer and network surveillance is the monitoring of computer activity and data stored locally on a computer or data being transferred over computer networks such as the Internet. This monitoring is often carried out covertly and may be completed by governments, corporations, criminal organizations, or individuals. It may or may not be legal and may or may not require authorization from a court or other independent government agencies. Computer and network surveillance programs are widespread today and almost all Internet traffic can be monitored.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hidden camera</span> Type of surveillance camera

A hidden camera or spy camera is a camera used to photograph or record subjects, often people, without their knowledge. The camera may be considered "hidden" because it is not visible to the subject being filmed, or is disguised as another object. Hidden cameras are often considered a surveillance tool.

Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967), was a landmark decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in which the Court redefined what constitutes a "search" or "seizure" with regard to the protections of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The ruling expanded the Fourth Amendment's protections from an individual's "persons, houses, papers, and effects", as specified in the Constitution's text, to include any areas where a person has a "reasonable expectation of privacy". The reasonable expectation of privacy standard, known as the Katz test, was formulated in a concurring opinion by Justice John Marshall Harlan II.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tradecraft</span> Espionage techniques

Tradecraft, within the intelligence community, refers to the techniques, methods and technologies used in modern espionage (spying) and generally, as part of the activity of intelligence assessment. This includes general topics or techniques, or the specific techniques of a nation or organization.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">MAINWAY</span> NSA database of US telephone calls

MAINWAY is a database maintained by the United States' National Security Agency (NSA) containing metadata for hundreds of billions of telephone calls made through the largest telephone carriers in the United States, including AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile.

Telephone call recording laws refer to the official legislation regarding call recording in different countries, including how or if the consent of parties is required beforehand.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Special Collection Service</span> Classified joint CIA–NSA program to insert eavesdropping equipment in difficult places

The Special Collection Service (SCS), codenamed F6, is a highly classified joint U.S. Central Intelligence Agency–National Security Agency program charged with inserting eavesdropping equipment in difficult-to-reach places, such as foreign embassies, communications centers, and foreign government installations. Established in the late 1970s and headquartered in Beltsville, Maryland, the SCS has been involved in operations ranging from the Cold War to the Global War on Terrorism.

Telephone tapping in the Eastern Bloc was a widespread method of the mass surveillance of the population by the secret police.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">The Thing (listening device)</span> Covert listening device

The Thing, also known as the Great Seal bug, was one of the first covert listening devices to use passive techniques to transmit an audio signal. It was concealed inside a gift given by the Soviet Union to W. Averell Harriman, the United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union, on August 4, 1945. Because it was passive, needing electromagnetic energy from an outside source to become energized and active, it is considered a predecessor of radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology.

Countersurveillance refers to measures that are usually undertaken by the public to prevent surveillance, including covert surveillance. Countersurveillance may include electronic methods such as technical surveillance counter-measures, which is the process of detecting surveillance devices. It can also include covert listening devices, visual surveillance devices, and countersurveillance software to thwart unwanted cybercrime, such as accessing computing and mobile devices for various nefarious reasons. More often than not, countersurveillance will employ a set of actions (countermeasures) that, when followed, reduce the risk of surveillance. Countersurveillance is different from sousveillance, as the latter does not necessarily aim to prevent or reduce surveillance.

Surveillance tools are all means technological provided and used by the surveillance industry, police or military intelligence, and national security institutions that enable individual surveillance and mass surveillance. Steven Ashley in 2008 listed the following components used for surveillance:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mass surveillance in the United States</span>

The practice of mass surveillance in the United States dates back to wartime monitoring and censorship of international communications from, to, or which passed through the United States. After the First and Second World Wars, mass surveillance continued throughout the Cold War period, via programs such as the Black Chamber and Project SHAMROCK. The formation and growth of federal law-enforcement and intelligence agencies such as the FBI, CIA, and NSA institutionalized surveillance used to also silence political dissent, as evidenced by COINTELPRO projects which targeted various organizations and individuals. During the Civil Rights Movement era, many individuals put under surveillance orders were first labelled as integrationists, then deemed subversive, and sometimes suspected to be supportive of the communist model of the United States' rival at the time, the Soviet Union. Other targeted individuals and groups included Native American activists, African American and Chicano liberation movement activists, and anti-war protesters.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Global surveillance disclosures (2013–present)</span> Disclosures of NSA and related global espionage

Ongoing news reports in the international media have revealed operational details about the Anglophone cryptographic agencies' global surveillance of both foreign and domestic nationals. The reports mostly emanate from a cache of top secret documents leaked by ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden, which he obtained whilst working for Booz Allen Hamilton, one of the largest contractors for defense and intelligence in the United States. In addition to a trove of U.S. federal documents, Snowden's cache reportedly contains thousands of Australian, British, Canadian and New Zealand intelligence files that he had accessed via the exclusive "Five Eyes" network. In June 2013, the first of Snowden's documents were published simultaneously by The Washington Post and The Guardian, attracting considerable public attention. The disclosure continued throughout 2013, and a small portion of the estimated full cache of documents was later published by other media outlets worldwide, most notably The New York Times, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Der Spiegel (Germany), O Globo (Brazil), Le Monde (France), L'espresso (Italy), NRC Handelsblad, Dagbladet (Norway), El País (Spain), and Sveriges Television (Sweden).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cellphone surveillance</span> Interception of mobile phone activity

Cellphone surveillance may involve tracking, bugging, monitoring, eavesdropping, and recording conversations and text messages on mobile phones. It also encompasses the monitoring of people's movements, which can be tracked using mobile phone signals when phones are turned on.

A microphone blocker is a phone microphone connector used to trick feature phones that have a physical microphone switch to disconnect the microphone. Microphone blockers won't operate on smartphones or laptops because the microphone is controlled with software rather than a physical switch.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Operation Monopoly</span> FBI covert plan

Operation Monopoly was a covert plan by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to build a tunnel underneath the Soviet Embassy in Washington, D.C., to gather secret intelligence.


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