Bayard & Holmes
~ Jay Holmes
In our last Writing Spies article, we talked about bugging rooms.* But what if our characters need to know if a room is already bugged?
First, consider the character being bugged and the character or organization doing the bugging.
Some characters are going to expect surveillance. For example, Mafiosos 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.
On the other side of the equation, 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.
Next, consider when and how the bugging equipment was placed, and precisely when the target would become suspicious.
If the target is a business executive or CIA employee visiting China, Russia, or another police state, he would assume that he has been targeted for surveillance, and he would sweep his hotel room or rental car routinely. He would also assume that he could be targeted by mobile bugging equipment when he leaves his hotel.
Does it seem odd to you when a surveillance target such as a mafia goon suspects a bug and proceeds to have a loud conversation about it with his co-goons in the room? An intelligent person does not announce suspicions.
Remaining calm can give the surveillance target an opportunity to discover a suspected bug without the surveillance team being alerted. The target can then use the bug to misinform his opponents and send them on wild goose chases.
Once you’ve considered the players, it’s 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. (Google “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.
This means that characters need to sweep the room or building without being obvious. Modern sweepers can be disguised as working cell phones, which can generate vibrations rather than tones. A character can hide her 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, he 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.
A sophisticated target might wait until nighttime and use 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, she can find nearly any bug with the right sensing equipment.
Smoke detectors and refrigerators can mask a bug’s infrared signature, so they need to be inspected visually.
One 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., he 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, 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 his 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, she can locate radio noise sources. Electronic noise might indicate a bug, but it might also indicate what you already suspected – 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 his brain.
Do you have spy questions? Bayard and Holmes will be checking in...
Related Writing Spies Articles:
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Piper Bayard, is an author and a recovering attorney. Her 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. Together, they are the bestselling authors of the international spy thriller, THE SPY BRIDE, to be re-released in spring of 2015.
Keep in touch through updates at Bayard & Holmes Covert Briefing.