*** 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.”
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.
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.
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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We also have some wonderful prizes for our readers to celebrate the success of our debut novella, THE SPY BRIDE, in the bestselling RISKY BRIDES collection. Sign up for the Bayard & Holmes newsletter, The Covert Message, and be automatically entered to win a Secret Decoder Ring, a stash of Ghirardelli chocolate, or a bottle of sparkling wine from Mumm Napa vineyard.
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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.