November 17th, 2014

Writing Spies: How the Pros Bug

Piper Bayard & Jay Holmes

*** For those of you who write about covert operatives, we invited Bayard & Holmes back to share some insider tips on how to write believable spies. Enjoy! ***

The basic function spooks serve is to spy on people and organizations. Technology makes that task easier. One major segment of that technology revolves around “bugs.”

James Bond checking the telephone for a bug. Of course, he finds one. Image from "From Russia with Love."

James Bond checking the telephone for a bug.
Of course, he finds one.
Image from “From Russia with Love.”

In spy 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 it’s far from the truth.

The Soviets successfully bugged the US Ambassador’s residential office in the US Embassy in Moscow from 1945 – 1952 with a gift of a carving of the US Great Seal. After that, the CIA invested heavily in developing better bugging and bug-detection technology. They developed “audio teams” whose specialty it was to bug targeted spaces. The term predates video surveillance. Modern intelligence services around the world now all field such specialty teams.

Bugging technology has improved tremendously since audio teams were first formed, but they still use some of the basic practices and principals developed prior to 1960. While other types of intelligence operatives 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.

Canstock 2014 Surveillance Word Collective

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

  • Time—How soon do they need the information?

If critical information is needed quickly there may not be time for an audio team to show up and do a thorough job. In that case, field operatives would do the job, and they have varying degrees of training and expertise in basic bugging techniques.

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

If a team or operative has only a few minutes, then they will use the simplest installations of disguised bugs. If a specialty 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-man team can install a high quality eavesdropping system that will be difficult for 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? (Are you seeing a theme?)

Transmitters—bugs—need a power source. They 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, without a direct tap into the electrical system.

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

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

If the operative 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 nearby to receive and re-transmit the bug’s weak signal.

They 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 when the car drives past the relay.

  • Alternative Installation Methods

Sometimes, the operative 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.

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.

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

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

In the most 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 you can intercept a delivery of new furniture or appliances, then you have a great opportunity to place the highest quality bugs with well-disguised installations without setting foot on the premises.

The Field Spook’s Bugging Kit

Once your character gains access by way of bribery or burglary, his 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 can also be turned on and off remotely to foil bug sweepers. The kit would also contain a small hand drill, a minimal paint kit, 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 may be disguised in something such as a travel-size chess set or built into real cosmetic containers for a female spy.

  • How a Field Spook Plants a Bug in a Wall

The operative first selects an advantageous location—often just above a baseboard. She begins by drilling a small hole, catching the dust on a little piece of plastic. She then selects a bug from her assortment, pops it in the hole, and seals the hole with epoxy. She empties the wall dust from the hole into a baggie and then uses the plastic as a palette to mix dabs of paint to match the color of the wall. With a small brush, she paints over the epoxy and then collects all of her materials to take with her. As a finishing touch, she sucks up ambient dust from against the baseboard with the puffer and puffs it onto the freshly painted wall until it looks like the surrounding area.

In short, your characters’ bugging efforts will be believable if you consider the full nature of the opportunities they have for surveillance and plan their bug installations accordingly. Where are they? How much time do they have? Who is the target? What equipment do they have? Work logically with your space, time, and tools, and your characters will bug like the pros.

Do you have any questions about bugging? What kinds of surveillance equipment do your spooks use in your books?

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Bayard and Holmes

Piper Bayard is a bestselling author and a recovering attorney. Her spy thriller writing partner, Jay Holmes, is an anonymous senior member of the intelligence community and a field veteran from the Cold War through the current Global War on Terror.

You can contact Bayard & Holmes in comments below, at their site, Bayard & Holmes, on Twitter at @piperbayard, on Facebook at Bayard & Holmes, or at their email, BH@BayardandHolmes.com.

17 comments to Writing Spies: How the Pros Bug

  • Fascinating stuff. Thanks for sharing.

    And lucky you, Piper, having an attorney’s background, as well as a senior intelligence insider as a writing partner. I should imagination it’s impossible to write a convincing spy book unless you have absolute knowledge of what goes on in such a closed organisation.

    My background is psychiatry and I sometimes get extremely cross at the ignorance about psychiatric disorders portrayed in books and films. Accuracy is so important.

    • One lucky thing for many spy thriller authors is that the “closed organization” aspect cuts both ways. While few people know the real deal, few people know the real deal. In other words, most readers don’t know, either, so many spy thrillers that are as fantastical as Game of Thrones or Harry Potter still sell well. We like to believe we have something to offer with our authenticity.

      I’m guessing your background in psychiatry is very helpful for creating convincing characters, and characters are definitely the most enduring aspect of great literature. Long after we forget the plot of Silence of the Lambs, we remember Hannibal Lecter.

      Glad you enjoyed the post. 🙂

  • Spooks and bugging–fun stuff! Thanks for the post. But if you could talk to the super-sharp hacker kids about what they can do, makes bugging look stone age. I’ve always thought a mistake in many spy thrillers is that the author makes the intelligence operative too thrilling. They’re often pretty ordinary seeming people. BTW if a senior intelligence insider is telling you stuff (that we couldn’t learn from the spy museum in DC), we’ve got bigger problems. 🙂

    • Don’t worry, Irtrovi. Holmes is no Snowden. He never reveals anything classified, and classified or not, he never reveals anything about specific missions. He is meticulous in making sure anything he says is both declassified and available in public sources. He just has a gift for compiling the information that is publicly available and picking out what is most relevant to the topic at hand.

      It’s true that hacker kids can do some amazing things; however, bugs definitely still have their place and purpose.

      Glad you enjoyed the post. 🙂

  • Fun stuff!! I just finished my first thriller involving a CIA operative in Cairo, Egypt. I was fortunate enough to live there and even more so that I was led to my own “informant” who has been incredibly helpful with little details that add authenticity to my story. This post is gem of information thanks for sharing!

  • Orly Konig-Lopez

    Fun post! Thanks for blogging with us, Piper. 🙂

  • It’s an honor, Orly. 🙂

  • It’s fascinating to me how much they can do in 5 minutes, Piper. And totally crazy that they can just swap out a switch plate or drill into a baseboard to wire things up. Is there equipment that scans for bugs?

    • I was surprised, too. I love talking with Holmes about these things. I always learn something. He, on the other hand, always learns from me how little the general public knows.

      There surely is equipment to scan for bugs, but that is a topic for another post. 🙂

  • Very cool! And, absolutely, the onus is on authors to get this sort of detail right. Unless they’re Ian Fleming, who I suspect was writing about a parallel universe, exactly like ours EXCEPT for all the details about how intelligence operatives work. Must admit I get – er – bugged by the wrong history and wrong science detail in novels and movies. Bond’s ridiculous magnet watch in ‘Live and Let Die’, for instance. (That said, I do enjoy Bond movies…they – er – they are comedy, aren’t they…).

    I have to say, the take-home lesson I get here is that the main skill a spook needs is that of a home handyman…and patience. Lots of patience.

    • Holmes and I actually love the Bond films specifically because they ARE comedy. They never take themselves too seriously. Even better on that score are the Pink Panther movies.

      And you’re right about the patience. Espionage is often a very long term investment.

      Glad you enjoyed the post. 🙂

  • Timely post for my NaNo project. Thanks!

  • […] our last Writing Spies article, we talked about bugging rooms.* But what if our characters need to know if a room is already […]