Covert listening device

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, is a common technique in surveillance, espionage and in police investigations.

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]

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 close proximity to the person wearing the "wire". Wires are typically used in police sting operations in order to gather information about suspects.[6]

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.[7]

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.[8]

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][9] This "roving bug" feature has been used by law enforcement agencies and intelligence services to listen in on nearby conversations.[10] 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.[11]

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.[12][13]

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.[14]

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, providing one is not doing so to collect confidential information, and of course it is illegal to do so for unlawful purposes. Members of the public using listening devices should check with a legal expert before doing so.

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. The 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. 1 2 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. 1 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. 1 2 Odell, Mark (1 August 2005). "Use of mobile helped police keep tabs on suspect". Financial Times. Retrieved 14 March 2009.
  4. 1 2 "Telephones". Western Regional Security Office (NOAA official site). 2001. Archived from the original on 6 November 2013. Retrieved 22 March 2009.
  5. 1 2 "Can You Hear Me Now?". ABC News: The Blotter. Archived from the original on 25 August 2011. Retrieved 13 December 2009.
  6. Informants and Undercover Investigations: A Practical Guide to Law, Policy, Dennis G. Fitzgerald, CRC Press, Jan 24, 2007, page 204
  7. Guide to Writing Movie Scripts, Wils Randel, 2009, page 123
  8. Organized Crime, Micheal Benson, Infobase Publishing, Jan. 1, 2009, page
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. FBI taps cell phone mic as eavesdropping tool., CNET, 1 December 2006
  12. Court Leaves the Door Open for Safety System Wiretaps, The New York Times, 21 December 2003 Archived 1 March 2012 at the Wayback Machine.
  13. Court to FBI: No spying on in-car computers. CNET, 19 November 2003
  15. Operation Dew Worm. Described by Peter Wright in Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, Stoddart (paperback), 1987. pp. 79-83
  16. "Fumigating the Fumigator". TIME Magazine. 25 September 1964. Archived from the original on 23 August 2013. Retrieved 6 June 2009. (subscription required)
  17. Hyde, Hon. Henry J. (26 October 1990), "Embassy Moscow: Paying the Bill", Congressional Record, p. E3555, archived from the original on 26 November 2012
  18. "AUSTRALIAN SECURITY & INTELLIGENCE ORGANIZATION (ASIO)". Archived from the original on 3 May 2009. Retrieved 5 April 2011. "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."
  19. 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.
  20. Damien McElroy and David Wastell (20 January 2002). "China finds spy bugs in Jiang's Boeing jet". The Telegraph. Archived from the original on 6 March 2014.
  21. "UK embassy 'bug' angers Pakistan". BBC News. 10 November 2003. Archived from the original on 14 November 2012. Retrieved 30 April 2010.
  22. "Vajpayee govt tried to bug Blair's bedroom in Delhi". IBNLive. 20 July 2007. Archived from the original on 29 September 2012.
  23. "Delhi clumsily bugged Blair's room". The Times Of India. 30 July 2007.
  24. 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.
  25. Conboy, Kenneth, and James Morrison, Shadow War: The CIA's Secret War in Laos, Paladin Press, pp. 381385.
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