Writing Spies: How To Bug a Room

by Piper Bayard
of Bayard & Holmes

Writing Spies: How To Bug a Room

The basic function of intelligence personnel (a.k.a. “spooks”) is to collect information on people and organizations. One way of doing that is to plant “bugs.” People often ask why anyone would bother physically bugging a room when there are so many ways to hack into everything from computers and phones to cars and refrigerators and take over the cameras and microphones in them to spy on people.

Physical bugging is still useful because one should not count on the target to have their devices with them, turned on, and pointed in the right direction for proper surveillance. Also, some people are savvy enough to keep electronics out of the room for important meetings or discussions.

Pro Tip #1 – Secure Conversations at Home

If you need to have a private conversation in your house, turn off your computers and keep them well out of the room. Also, turn off phones and put them in the microwave. A microwave should block the signals.

To test this, put your phone in the microwave when the phone is on and then call it. If your phone rings, your conversation is not secure, and neither is your microwave. You need to replace it.

What is a “bug?”

In spook parlance and crime stories, the term “bug” refers to electronic devices for clandestinely monitoring targeted spaces. We’ve all seen and read about fictional spooks locating bugs in homes, offices, and hotel rooms. The characters usually find them in a few seconds on lampshades, behind pictures, and inside desk phones. It’s cute and convenient for writers to pretend that bugs are so easy, but in modern times, this is far from the truth.

In the early years of the Cold War, the Soviets successfully bugged the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union’s residential office in the US Embassy in Moscow from 1945 – 1952. They did this by presenting the ambassador with a gift of a carving of the US Great Seal. Once the bug inside the Great Seal was discovered in 1952, the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) invested heavily in developing better bugging and bug-detection technology.

The agency also developed “audio teams,” whose specialty it was to bug targeted spaces. The term audio team predates video surveillance, but it is still used by older (pre-video) spooks, while the term “tech teams” is used by younger ones. Intelligence services around the world all now field such specialty teams.

Bugging technology has improved tremendously since audio teams were first formed, but the tech teams of today still use some of the basic practices and principals developed prior to 1960. While other types of intelligence personnel partake in bugging activities as opportunities allow, when time and opportunity permit, a specialized team can do a better and less-detectable installation of bugs.

How an operative or a team bugs a location depends on several factors.

Time—How soon do they need the information?

If they need critical information quickly, a field spook may not have time for a tech team to show up and do a thorough job. In that case, the spook would do the job, and they all have varying degrees of training and expertise in basic bugging techniques. In other words, your character’s time constraints will dictate whether they plant the bug or they call in a team.

Time—How long will they have to plant the bugs?

If a field spook or a team has only a few minutes, then they will use the simplest installations of disguised bugs. If a tech team has as much as twenty minutes to work, they consider it a luxury. With less time, they will be less thorough.

Time—How sophisticated is the target?

In twenty minutes, a six-person tech team can install a top-quality eavesdropping system that will be difficult for even a sophisticated opponent such as a Russian or Communist Chinese embassy to detect. With a less-sophisticated target, such as a drug gang or a Third World military or diplomatic installation, a good team can do a great job in as little as five minutes.

Time—How long must the power source for the bug last?

Answering machine cord bug
Image by Piper Bayard

Bugs are transmitters, and they need a power source. Some bugs are now smaller than a dime, and in the smallest devices, battery power is limited. However, technology allows for bugs to use external power sources, such as the target’s own electrical system.

The bug’s transmission need not be powerful. In fact, if a bug transmits too strong a signal, the target can detect it too easily.

The bug pictured here doubles as an answering machine cord. It is an example of the fact that anything can be rigged as a bug. Anything.

The answering machine this was used on also provided the bug’s power source. Not only did this bug pick up phone conversations, but the large black end has tiny holes in it, allowing it to transmit conversations that took place in the room where it was located. It worked well until the Soviets figured it out around 2005.

Location—Where can the operative or audio team monitor the bugs?

Bugs must be monitored, but that is made complex by the fact that a bug transmitting a strong signal is more likely to be detected. That means that to monitor a bug, either the spook or the tech team must be nearby, or there must be relays.

If the spook or team can’t safely monitor the installed bug from a nearby location, such as an apartment or business in an adjoining building, then larger (but still compact) relays can be installed near the bug to receive and re-transmit the bug’s weak signal. One reason this answering machine bug avoided detection for so long was because it only had to transmit as far as the closet on the other side of the wall, where a larger relay transmitted the signal farther.

Field operatives and tech teams can also install monitoring equipment in a vehicle. A car’s trunk can contain equipment that can trigger a relay to quickly transmit information and recordings picked up by the bug in a matter of seconds. All the spook or team has to do is drive the vehicle past the relay.

Alternative Installation Methods

Sometimes, the spook doesn’t need to access the space. Many a bug has been placed by sending a nice gift to a target, such as a heavy desk clock, a lovely antique lamp, or the US Great Seal carving referenced above.

1945 Great Seal Exibit Replica of bugged gift to US Ambassador Harriman Image from NSA Cryptologic Museum

1945 Great Seal Exhibit
Replica of bugged gift to US Ambassador Harriman
Image from NSA Cryptologic Museum, public domain

The trick in these cases is to have a viable source for the gift. A contractor trying to do business with a foreign embassy might serve as such a source if the contractor is in the employ of the folks doing the bugging. Unfortunately, most of the premier targets, such as a Russian embassy, will not be easily duped into accepting gifts and placing them in secured areas.

In the ideal case, a targeted building can be bugged during construction. These windfalls are infrequent, but they provide the best opportunity for placing the most sophisticated, long-acting bugs.

A more frequent event would be gaining access when repair work is being done. If your character can intercept a delivery of new furniture or appliances, then they have a great opportunity to place high-quality bugs and thoroughly disguise the installations without setting foot on the premises.

The Field Spook’s Bugging Kit

Once your character gains access to a space by way of bribery, trickery, or breaking and entering, their bugging kit need not be any larger than a paperback novel.

A basic bugging kit would include bugs that can be programmed to record and/or transmit on preset schedules. The bugs could also be turned on and off remotely to foil bug sweepers. The kit would contain a small hand drill, a minimal paint set, and epoxies for patching minute holes in walls. The paint is odor-free and fast-drying. For the finishing touch, the kit would contain a “puffer” for adding a layer of ambient dust to a painted area.

The entire kit might be disguised in someth

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