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Covert listening device

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(Redirected from Surveillance bug)
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. With no moving parts and greater power efficiency, these solid-state devices could be operated by small batteries, which revolutionized the process 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).[7] 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.[8][9]

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.[10] The wire device transmits to a remote location where law enforcement agents monitor what is being said.

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.[11]

When infiltrating a criminal organization a mole may be given a "wire" to wear under their clothes.

Wearing a wire is viewed as risky since discovery could lead to violence against the mole or other retaliatory responses.[12]

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][13] This "roving bug" feature has been used by law enforcement agencies and intelligence services to listen in on nearby conversations.[14] 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.[15] 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] With the Covid-19 pandemic came an increase in remote work spurring on a new advent of Employee Monitoring Software which remotely collects many forms of data from laptops and smartphones issued by employers, including webcam and microphone data, raising concerns that a new era of corporate spying has shifted the power balance between workers and businesses.

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.[16][17]

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 the glass pane of 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.[18]

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 on their own property to capture evidence of excessive noise in a neighbour complaint, which is legal in normal circumstances.[35]


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.[35]

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.

United States Law on Listening Devices


Federal laws on Listening Devices


Several federal laws were passed by congress that apply nation-wide. Under Title 18 of the US Code § 2251 2(iii)(c) at least one of the parties involved in the communication must have given consent to interception of the communication. This title applies to wire, oral, or any kind of electric communication. This single party consent only applies if one of the parties is an "officer of the United States" (Title 18 of the US Code § 2251 [2d]).[36] Furthermore, congress passed the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA). This act updated the Federal Wiretap Act of 1968. The Federal Wiretap act addressed the interception of conversations over telephone lines, but not interception of computer or other digital data. This act was further updated by the USA Patriot Act to clarify and modernize the ECPA. The ECPA has three title. Title I prohibits attempted or successful interception of or "procure[ment] [of] any other person to intercept or endeavor to intercept any wire, oral, or electronic communication." It also prohibits the storage of any information obtained via phone calls without consent or illegally obtained though wiretaps.[37] Furthermore, the US passed the Wiretap Act which prohibits unauthorized interception of "wire, oral, or electronic communications" by the government or by private citizens. Furthermore, this act establishes the procedure for government officials to obtain warrants to authorize any wiretapping activates. Such laws were passed in response to congressional investigations that found extensive cases of government and private wiretapping without consent or legal authorization.[38] In the US electronic surveille is seen as protected under the Constitution that the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure by the government,[39] which also is seen by the Supreme Court of the United States as electronic surveille.

State to State variation


Listening devices are regulated by several legislative bodies in the United States. Laws on listening devices varies between states within the US. Typically the variation comes on whether or not the state is a one or two party consent state. Within one party consent states, only one party must approve the recording, whereas in all party consent states all parties must consent to the recording. In many states, the consent requirements listed below only apply to situations where the parties have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as private property, and do not apply in public areas. [40] (Protection can apply to conversations in public areas in some circumstances.)[41]

Parties required to give consent by state
One-party Consent States All-Party Consent States
Alabama California
Alaska Connecticut
Arizona Delaware
Arkansas Florida
Colorado Illinois
District of Columbia (D.C.) Maryland
Georgia Massachusetts
Hawaii Michigan
Idaho Montana
Indiana Nevada
Iowa New Hampshire
Kansas Oregon
Kentucky Pennsylvania
Louisiana Vermont
Maine Washington
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota
West Virginia

See also



  1. ^ a b c Kröger, Jacob Leon; Raschke, Philip (2019). "Is My Phone Listening in? On the Feasibility and Detectability of Mobile Eavesdropping". Data and Applications Security and Privacy XXXIII. Lecture Notes in Computer Science. Vol. 11559. pp. 102–120. doi:10.1007/978-3-030-22479-0_6. ISBN 978-3-030-22478-3. ISSN 0302-9743.
  2. ^ a b Schneier, Bruce (5 December 2006). "Remotely Eavesdropping on Cell Phone Microphones". Schneier On Security. Archived from the original on 12 January 2014. Retrieved 13 December 2009.
  3. ^ a b McCullagh, Declan; Anne Broache (1 December 2006). "FBI taps cell phone mic as eavesdropping tool". CNet News. Archived from the original on 10 November 2013. Retrieved 14 March 2009.
  4. ^ a b Odell, Mark (1 August 2005). "Use of mobile helped police keep tabs on suspect". Financial Times. Retrieved 14 March 2009.
  5. ^ a b "Telephones". Western Regional Security Office (NOAA official site). 2001. Archived from the original on 6 November 2013. Retrieved 22 March 2009.
  6. ^ a b "Can You Hear Me Now?". ABC News: The Blotter. Archived from the original on 25 August 2011. Retrieved 13 December 2009.
  7. ^ US843186A, Germer, William F. H., "Telephone dictating machine or apparatus", issued 1907-02-05 
  8. ^ Kemp, Kathryn W. (2007). ""The Dictograph Hears All": An Example of Surveillance Technology in the Progressive Era". The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. 6 (4): 409–430. doi:10.1017/S153778140000222X. S2CID 163849152.
  9. ^ Strother, French (1912). "What the dictograph is". The World's Work. 24 (1): 37–41.
  10. ^ Informants and Undercover Investigations: A Practical Guide to Law, Policy, Dennis G. Fitzgerald, CRC Press, Jan 24, 2007, page 204
  11. ^ Guide to Writing Movie Scripts, Wils Randel, 2009, page 123
  12. ^ Organized Crime, Micheal Benson, Infobase Publishing, Jan. 1, 2009, page
  13. ^ Lewis Page (26 June 2007). "Cell hack geek stalks pretty blonde shocker". The Register. Archived from the original on 3 November 2013. Retrieved 1 May 2010.
  14. ^ Brian Wheeler (2 March 2004). "This goes no further..." BBC News Online Magazine. Archived from the original on 27 March 2014. Retrieved 23 June 2008.
  15. ^ FBI taps cell phone mic as eavesdropping tool. Archived 14 July 2014 at the Wayback Machine, CNET News.com, 1 December 2006
  16. ^ "Court Leaves the Door Open for Safety System Wiretaps", The New York Times, 21 December 2003 Archived 1 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  17. ^ Court to FBI: No spying on in-car computers. Archived 14 July 2014 at the Wayback Machine CNET News.com, 19 November 2003
  18. ^ "How To Translate Sight Into Sound? It's All In The Vibrations". npr.org. Archived from the original on 14 July 2017. Retrieved 9 May 2018.
  19. ^ Operation Dew Worm. Described by Peter Wright in Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, Stoddart (paperback), 1987. pp. 79-83
  20. ^ "Operation Easy Chair: Bugging the Russian Embassy in The Hague in 1958". 30 March 2017. Archived from the original on 1 April 2017.
  21. ^ "Fumigating the Fumigator". Time. 25 September 1964. Archived from the original on 23 August 2013. Retrieved 6 June 2009. (subscription required)
  22. ^ Hyde, Hon. Henry J. (26 October 1990), "Embassy Moscow: Paying the Bill", Congressional Record, p. E3555, archived from the original on 26 November 2012
  23. ^ "Operation Gunman: how the Soviets bugged IBM typewriters". Crypto Museum. 14 October 2015. Archived from the original on 15 May 2017.
  24. ^ "Australian Security & Intelligence Organization (ASIO)". Archived from the original on 3 May 2009. Retrieved 5 April 2011.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link) "In 1990, it was learned, that the ASIS, along with the help of 30 NSA technicians, had bugged the Chinese embassy. The story had originally been picked up by an Australian paper, but the ASIS asked them to sit on the story. Shortly thereafter, the Associated Press also picked up the story, but the ASIS also got them to sit on the story. However, the story somehow made its way to Time magazine, where it was published, compromising the operation."
  25. ^ "UK embassy 'bug' angers Pakistan". BBC News. 10 November 2003. Archived from the original on 14 November 2012. Retrieved 30 April 2010.
  26. ^ "OPEC bug". Crypto Museum. 28 August 2016. Archived from the original on 31 March 2017.
  27. ^ "EU investigates mystery buggings". 19 March 2003. Retrieved 13 May 2020.
  28. ^ Johnston, David; James Risen (10 December 1999). "U.S. Expelling Russian Diplomat in Bugging of State Dept". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 6 February 2009. Retrieved 27 March 2008.
  29. ^ McElroy, Damien; Wastell, David (20 January 2002). "China finds spy bugs in Jiang's Boeing jet". The Telegraph. Archived from the original on 6 March 2014.
  30. ^ "Vajpayee govt tried to bug Blair's bedroom in Delhi". IBNLive. 20 July 2007. Archived from the original on 29 September 2012.
  31. ^ "Delhi clumsily bugged Blair's room". The Times of India. 30 July 2007. Archived from the original on 8 August 2016.
  32. ^ "Bugging device found at UN offices". the Guardian. 18 December 2004. Retrieved 4 September 2021.
  33. ^ Moore, Matthew (25 November 2008). "Russia's teapot gift to Queen 'could have been bugged'". The Daily Telegraph. London. Archived from the original on 7 February 2009. Retrieved 30 April 2010.
  34. ^ Conboy, Kenneth, and James Morrison, Shadow War: The CIA's Secret War in Laos, Paladin Press, pp. 381–385.
  35. ^ a b The Telecommunications (Lawful Business Practice) (Interception of Communications) Regulations 2000.
  36. ^ "18 U.S. Code § 2511 - Interception and disclosure of wire, oral, or electronic communications prohibited". LII / Legal Information Institute. Retrieved 29 January 2024.
  37. ^ "Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA) | Bureau of Justice Assistance". bja.ojp.gov. Retrieved 29 January 2024.
  38. ^ "Title III of The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 (Wiretap Act) | Bureau of Justice Assistance". bja.ojp.gov. Retrieved 29 January 2024.
  39. ^ "What Does the Fourth Amendment Mean? | United States Courts". www.uscourts.gov. Retrieved 29 January 2024.
  40. ^ "Recording Phone Calls and Conversations: 50-State Survey". Justia. 25 April 2018. Retrieved 29 January 2024.
  41. ^ "eavesdropping". LII / Legal Information Institute. Retrieved 29 January 2024.