Covert listening device

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, 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 U.S. 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]


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.[6][7]

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.[8]

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. "Wearing a wire" by undercover agents is typical plot element in gangster and police related movies and television shows.

A stereotypical movie scene is someone being suspected of "wearing a wire" and the criminals tearing the suspect's shirt open hoping to reveal the deception.[9]

When infiltrating a criminal organization a mole may be given a "wire" to wear under his or her 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 of a hidden wire by a criminal could lead to violence against the mole or other retaliatory responses.[10]

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][11] This "roving bug" feature has been used by law enforcement agencies and intelligence services to listen in on nearby conversations.[12] 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.[13]

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.[14][15]

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.[16]

Examples of use

  • Embassies and other diplomatic posts are often the targets of bugging operations.
  • During World War II, the Nazis took over a Berlin brothel, Salon Kitty, and used concealed microphones to spy on patrons.
  • Also during the war, the British used covert listening devices to monitor captured German fighter pilots being held at Trent Park.
  • In the late 1970s, a bug was discovered in a meeting room at the OPEC headquarters in Vienna. The bug intercepted the audio from the PA system via a pickup coil and transmitted it on a frequency near 600 MHz using subcarrier audio masking. It was not discovered who was responsible for planting the bug.[23]
  • Colin Thatcher, a Canadian politician, was secretly recorded making statements which would later be used to convict him of his wife's murder. The recording device was concealed on a person Thatcher had previously approached for help in the crime.
  • Electronic bugging devices were found in March 2003 at offices used by French and German delegations at the European Union headquarters in Brussels. Devices were also discovered at offices used by other delegations. The discovery of the telephone tapping systems was first reported by Le Figaro newspaper, which blamed the US.
  • The car of Thomas Hentschell, who was involved in the Melbourne gangland killings, was bugged by police.
  • In 1999, the US expelled a Russian diplomat, accusing him of using a listening device in a top floor conference room used by diplomats in the United States Department of State headquarters.[24]
  • In 2001, the government of the People's Republic of China announced that it had discovered twenty-seven bugs in a Boeing 767 purchased as an official aircraft for President Jiang Zemin.[25]
  • In 2003, the Pakistani embassy building in London was found bugged; contractors hired by MI5 had planted bugs in the building in 2001.[26]
  • In 2003, Alastair Campbell (who was Director of Communications and Strategy from 1997-2003 for the British Prime Minister) in his memoirs The Blair Years: The Alastair Campbell Diaries alleged that two bugs were discovered in the hotel room meant for visiting Prime Minister Tony Blair planted by Indian intelligence agencies. The alleged bug discovery was at a hotel during Blair's official visit to New Delhi in 2001. Security services supposedly informed him that the bugs could not be removed without drilling the wall and therefore he changed to another room.[27][28]
  • In 2004, a bug was found in a meeting room at the United Nations offices in Geneva.
  • In 2008 it was reported that an electric samovar presented to Elizabeth II in about 1968 by a Soviet aerobatic team was removed from Balmoral Castle as a security precaution amid fears that its wiring could contain a listening device.[29]
  • On 6 December 1972, the Central Intelligence Agency placed a wire tap on a multiplex trunk line 24 kilometers southwest of Vinh to intercept Vietnamese communist messages concerning negotiating an end to the Vietnam War.[30]
  • The Watergate scandal in the 1970s.

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.

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 even just to take notes for their own reference.

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


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Odell, Mark (1 August 2005). "Use of mobile helped police keep tabs on suspect". Financial Times. Retrieved 14 March 2009.
  4. "Telephones". Western Regional Security Office (NOAA official site). 2001. Archived from the original on 6 November 2013. Retrieved 22 March 2009.
  5. "Can You Hear Me Now?". ABC News: The Blotter. Archived from the original on 25 August 2011. Retrieved 13 December 2009.
  6. 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.
  7. Strother, French (1912). "What the dictograph is". The World's Work. 24 (1): 37–41.
  8. Informants and Undercover Investigations: A Practical Guide to Law, Policy, Dennis G. Fitzgerald, CRC Press, Jan 24, 2007, page 204
  9. Guide to Writing Movie Scripts, Wils Randel, 2009, page 123
  10. Organized Crime, Micheal Benson, Infobase Publishing, Jan. 1, 2009, page
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. FBI taps cell phone mic as eavesdropping tool. Archived 14 July 2014 at the Wayback Machine, CNET, 1 December 2006
  14. Court Leaves the Door Open for Safety System Wiretaps, The New York Times, 21 December 2003 Archived 1 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  15. Court to FBI: No spying on in-car computers. Archived 14 July 2014 at the Wayback Machine CNET, 19 November 2003
  16. "How To Translate Sight Into Sound? It's All In The Vibrations". Archived from the original on 14 July 2017. Retrieved 9 May 2018.
  17. Operation Dew Worm. Described by Peter Wright in Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, Stoddart (paperback), 1987. pp. 79-83
  18. "Operation Easy Chair: Bugging the Russian Embassy in The Hague in 1958". 30 March 2017. Archived from the original on 1 April 2017.
  19. "Fumigating the Fumigator". TIME Magazine. 25 September 1964. Archived from the original on 23 August 2013. Retrieved 6 June 2009. (subscription required)
  20. Hyde, Hon. Henry J. (26 October 1990), "Embassy Moscow: Paying the Bill", Congressional Record, p. E3555, archived from the original on 26 November 2012
  21. "Operation Gunman: how the Soviets bugged IBM typewriters". Crypto Museum. 14 October 2015. Archived from the original on 15 May 2017.
  22. "AUSTRALIAN SECURITY & INTELLIGENCE ORGANIZATION (ASIO)". Archived from the original on 3 May 2009. Retrieved 5 April 2011.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."
  23. "OPEC bug". Crypto Museum. 28 August 2016. Archived from the original on 31 March 2017.
  24. 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.
  25. 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.
  26. "UK embassy 'bug' angers Pakistan". BBC News. 10 November 2003. Archived from the original on 14 November 2012. Retrieved 30 April 2010.
  27. "Vajpayee govt tried to bug Blair's bedroom in Delhi". IBNLive. 20 July 2007. Archived from the original on 29 September 2012.
  28. "Delhi clumsily bugged Blair's room". The Times Of India. 30 July 2007. Archived from the original on 8 August 2016.
  29. 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.
  30. Conboy, Kenneth, and James Morrison, Shadow War: The CIA's Secret War in Laos, Paladin Press, pp. 381385.
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