Writing Spies: How to Find Bugs

By Piper Bayard
of Bayard & Holmes

 

Now that we know how to bug a room (see Writing Spies: Bugging a Room), it’s important to look at the other side of the equation. How can our characters know if a room is bugged? A great deal depends on the character and the situation in which they would be under surveillance.

One tool for dealing with bugs is to avoid them.

If it doesn’t contradict their cover, the savvy spook out in the field will opt for three or four star hotels rather than five star hotels, as five star hotels in major cities are routinely under surveillance from any number of governments.

Also, whenever a spook arrives at a hotel where they have booked a room in advance, they might find a reason to insist on a different room from the one that has been prepared for them. That way, they avoid any “unwanted guests” in their room.


When bugs are needed for a story, before they can be found in a logical way, we must first consider the character being bugged and the character or organization doing the bugging.

Some characters are going to expect surveillance. For example, Mafiosi and the FBI agents that hunt them are going to be constantly suspicious that they are under surveillance. Successfully bugging them will require a higher level of technical skill and caution than what would be needed to bug characters who don’t have reason to suspect they are being watched. Likely, these bugs will be on the more difficult end of the spectrum to find.

On the other end of the spectrum, a jealous spouse or neighborhood pervert is not likely to be as skillful at placing bugs as an FBI Agent, CIA employee, or even your local police. Their bugs will be easier to detect.

The next things to consider when determining how to realistically detect bugs in our stories are when and how the bugging equipment was placed. If the person doing the bugging was an amateur in a hurry, the job might have gotten no further than a nanny-cam teddy bear. If they were a professional, it would likely take high-grade equipment to detect the bugs and/or cameras.

It is also necessary to determine when a target will become suspicious.

If the target is a business executive or CIA employee visiting China, Russia, or another police state, they would assume that they have been targeted for surveillance, and they would sweep their hotel room or rental car routinely with professional equipment. They would also assume that they could be targeted by mobile bugging equipment when they leave their hotel.

On the other hand, if the target is an electronic engineer for a Fortune 500 company traveling overseas for the first time and staying in a five-star hotel, they will likely not suspect a thing. In fact, they will probably not even spot that they are being honeypotted when a gorgeous young Russian girl comes on to them in that hotel bar. . . . Yes. That’s a thing.

Once a target does become suspicious, they may or may not announce those suspicions. For example, an intelligent surveillance target will remain calm and take the opportunity to discover a bug without the surveillance team listening in being alerted. The target can then use the bug to misinform their opponents and send them on wild goose chases.


Now it is time to think about the technology.

Bug sweeping devices with various levels of sophistication are readily available to the public at costs ranging from $25 for a simple sweeper to $1,500 for a decent sweeper with full spectrum analysis capabilities. (Search “bug sweeping devices retail.”) So even in the case of a non-professional or non-criminal, a character can readily obtain electronic sweeping equipment.

In the age of tiny video cameras and transmitters, we all have to assume that we are under video and audio surveillance any time we are outside of a secured space. This means that characters need to sweep the room or building they are in without being obvious.

Modern sweepers can be disguised as working cell phones, which can generate vibrations rather than tones, allowing a character to hide their true aim of detecting surveillance equipment by placing a fake call on the device and pacing the room while conversing.

Sweepers detect transmissions from either microphones or cameras, and they do not distinguish between the two. If your character doesn’t care about tipping off the surveillance team, they can use the sweeper to zero in on the transmission and then inspect the vent, lamp, furniture, etc. to discover the nature of the transmitting bug.

More sophisticated bugs can be remotely controlled to limit transmissions, but more sophisticated scanners can detect them even when they are not transmitting.

Another method a more sophisticated target might employ is waiting until nighttime and using infrared detection to find heat being generated by bugs. This method is quite effective for most bugs. If a character waits a few minutes after turning off the lights to let the walls and furniture begin to cool down, they can find nearly any bug with the right sensing equipment. However, smoke detectors and refrigerators can mask a bug’s infrared signature, so they need to be inspected visually.

Yet another technique for bug detection involves searching for pinhole camera surveillance. Pinhole cameras rely on small amounts of light coming through a wall via multiple pinholes. A character would turn off the lights and then, while looking through an empty toilet paper tube, wrapping paper tube, mailing tube, etc., they would sweep the walls with a bright flashlight and watch for inexplicable small reflections. Such out-of-place light sources may indicate a pinhole camera system.

Another type of bugging a writer might employ in a story is an infrared laser system that bounces off windows. A character can monitor the laser’s reflection off the window, and the glass’s vibration can be measured and interpreted as sound. Basic infrared sensing equipment can detect these systems and pick up conversations from a targeted room without having equipment inside.

In the absence of bug-detection equipment, a character can be clever and use their regular cell phone to do a basic bug sweep, even if it really is just a cell phone. By placing a call and then pacing the room, they can locate radio noise sources. Electronic noise might indicate a bug, but it might also indicate what we all already suspect – that we all pay far too much for hideously low-quality cell phones. Higher-quality bugs will not be detected by a regular cell phone.

The equipment and techniques are fun to consider, but before considering the technical aspects, be sure to consider the situation and the characters. Remember, whether the character is a complete innocent or a cunning old spook, the most important debugging tool is their brain.


What do the main intelligence agencies do and where do they operate? How do they recruit personnel? What are real life honey pots and sleeper agents? What about truth serums and enhanced interrogations? And what are the most common foibles of popular spy fiction?

With the voice of over forty years of experience in the Intelligence Community, Bayard & Holmes answer these questions and share information on espionage history, firearms of spycraft, tradecraft techniques, and the personalities and personal challenges of the men and women behind the myths.

Though crafted with advice and specific tips for writers, SPYCRAFT: Essentials is for anyone who wants to learn more about the inner workings of the Shadow World.

“For any author, this is the new bible for crafting stories of espionage.”

~ James Rollins, New York Times Bestselling Author of The Demon Crown

Piper Bayard and Jay Holmes of Bayard & Holmes are the authors of espionage tomes and international spy thrillers. Please visit Piper and Jay at their site, BayardandHolmes.com. For notices of their upcoming releases, subscribe to the Bayard & Holmes Covert Briefing. You can also contact Bayard & Holmes at their Contact page, on Twitter

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