It seems Homeland Security might need a good exterminator. Last month, four electronic listening devices -- often called "bugs" -- were found above the ceiling tiles of the local office of Homeland Security, the department charged with protecting the United States from terrorism.
If that sounds like an all-too-brief assessment of a potentially life-threatening situation, that's because many of the details -- including the reason for and the perpetrator behind the bugging -- are uncertain. County officials initially indicated that the devices were found during an FBI sweep but later retracted that statement.
Kevin Murray is the founder of Murray Associates, an independent consulting firm specializing in audio eavesdropping, video voyeurism, and espionage countermeasures. He says if you think you have found a bug, do not disturb the device and do not alert the eavesdropper by talking. Instead, secure the area, take photos if possible, and only tell those with a "need to know."
We talked to Murray about just how easy it is to listen in. -- by Zac Hill
Flyer: How easy is it to obtain a "bug"?
Murray: Electronic surveillance equipment that would have been considered Bond-ish in the past is now available (via the Internet) to anyone.
People who might not have considered spying before -- due to cost, availability, technical knowledge, fear of discovery -- have had all those stops removed.
What kinds of listening devices are available?
You name it; it's out there.
What is the typical transmitting range?
Well, for radio, what they try to do is make the range as small as possible; you don't want somebody else to stumble across it by mistake. The rule of thumb is to keep it low-power. However, there are devices where you can be on the other side of the world, dial in a phone call, and listen. Buy a cell phone with cash, then put the ringer on silent and configure it to answer automatically -- you're totally anonymous.
What's the penalty for illegal audio surveillance?
Generally speaking, it's never imposed to its fullest where you get jail time. There is usually a monetary fine. In civil cases, it's around $100 per day for every day they can prove it's going on, though state laws vary in the exact amount.
How do you detect a bug?
First thing you can do is a physical search -- after all, there are only so many places within a room you can hide something. You just look around until you see something unusual. That can take a lot of time, and it's a lot of work.
You can use a spectrum analyzer to detect radio transmissions, or a telephone analyzer to take a look at the phone and wire itself.
At the high end, you can use thermal-imaging cameras to detect heat that's given off from a listening device. Whenever you put electricity through a circuit, some of the power is lost as heat. But even if you took a small bugging device and hid it within something else, it will still generate a small amount of heat. With a sensitive-enough camera, you can see the heat. So if there's a book on your bookshelf that's glowing red on the camera, you might want to take a look at it.