Writers in the Storm

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March 11, 2022

Writing Spies: Who and What is Listening, and Why?

by Piper Bayard
of Bayard & Holmes

I write with a partner who is a 47-yr veteran of Intelligence Community field operations. My friends know to unplug their Alexas and their Smart TVs when I’m in a room. Sometimes, I even ask them to turn off their phones and put them alongside mine in their microwave oven before a conversation continues.

This is not because I talk about classified information. I don’t. It’s also not because I’m particularly interesting. I’m not. It’s because I know who does think I’m interesting and how they can use the mundane information of my day.

Today, we will only look at spying on the part of corporations and governments. For information about hackers and their criminal activities, see my earlier WITS article, “Hacking: It Isn’t Just for Thrillers Anymore.” 

So which of our devices can be used to spy on us?

In short, all of them. If it has a mic and/or a camera and connects to the internet, it can be and likely is being used by someone to listen to everything we say and watch everything we do within the field of reception.

Writing Tip: For our characters who are undercover or in hiding, this means they either hide in plain sight with plastic surgery and false identities, or they must be very isolated to be genuinely off the grid. It is not enough that they don’t carry their own electronics or use credit cards. Cameras and mics are ubiquitous in our daily lives, and they are all watching and listening in. With facial recognition software, our characters are not likely to be able to hide in society for very long.

Voice-Activated Devices

Smart TVs, Alexa, Siri, and all other voice-activated electronics are created specifically to listen for and respond to commands.

Think of those devices as entire teams of marketing specialists and hostile government spies sitting in our living rooms with us, and they never sleep or go away unless we unplug them and/or toss them in the garbage at the curb.

Devices often come with manufacturer statements saying that they only collect “voice data” for the purpose of recognizing and responding to commands. However, for the device to determine whether we are issuing a command, all detectable sounds are collected and transmitted to an unnamed third-party vendor.

Companies that sell electronics do not release information about that third-party vendor. That anonymous third-party vendor owns and maintains the computer hardware that runs the programs that collect and sort through everything that is said to determine if anyone is giving a command to the device.

That third-party vendor could be a corporation, it could be Russia , it could be the People’s Republic of China (“PRC”), or it could be skeevy Uncle Fred with the servers in his bathroom.

These devices also usually come with language stating that the company does not sell the voice data they collect to third parties. Keep in mind that “voice data,” as it pertains to the device, might only include legitimate commands. So what does the company do with all of the rest of the data collected that does not fall under the definition of voice data?

I’m seeing plots here. How about you?


More importantly, even if in some alternate universe corporations can be trusted, what do the third party vendors do with our data?

They can and likely do sell our data to marketing firms, governments foreign and domestic, private individuals, organized crime, or all of the above. The firms, corporations, governments foreign and domestic, and people who purchase our data can then do whatever they please with it.

In addition to the third-party vendors that collect all of our singing in the shower, there is the fact that the electronics are made somewhere.

That somewhere is inevitably the PRC. Communist China. West Taiwan. Xi Jinping’s Hundred Acre Wood.

Virtually every electronic device that is produced today is assembled in the PRC. It is simply assumed by those in the computer industry that both corporations and governments that come in contact with electronic components during the course of their production will attempt to design in what are called “back doors.” Back doors allow those corporations and governments to access devices without having to expend the energy of hacking.

In other words, the PRC installs back doors or at least attempts to install them into all of the electronic devices it assembles. The PRC does this specifically to spy on the West as part of its Thousand Grains of Sand intelligence-gathering program described below.

Electronics corporations, Western governments, and most people under the age of twenty-five know this, but, hey, cheap stuff and convenience, right?

Phones

Phones are especially convenient for governments and corporations to use to collect information.

They can use phones to locate and track people, collect conversations on and around the phone, and watch people through the phone cameras. Software can be embedded in phones by apps or at public WiFi locations. Phones also send signals that talk to other electronic devices around us.

For example, phone conversations are regularly intercepted by such things as the IMSI-catchers, or “stingrays,” that police use to hijack cell phone connections to spy on people. Stingrays mimic wireless cell towers and “force” all surrounding cell phones and mobile devices to connect to it.

 Their use is widespread across America. It’s an easy bet that the Department of Homeland Security has perfected the art. The legality of such unwarranted police surveillance practices is still being debated in the courts.

Also, the PRC, Russia (and any other nation that can afford the surveillance infrastructure) collect all of the phone conversations in and around Washington, D.C., San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and other major Western cities.

Those nations are not concerned with any legality. However, we do not know how efficiently they can actually sort through all of that data.

Apps & Terms of Use Agreements

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Phone apps exponentially increase the spying capabilities of corporations, particularly in the realm of geo-location. These apps are used for the physical tracking of individuals for the purpose of generating filthy lucre.

Such companies as Google, Facebook, and Verizon capture their users' locations and sell the data to marketing corporations. This is actually all completely legal, as people agree to this tracking in the terms of the operating system, application, and telecom company when they agree to “terms” during the installation or start-up process.

Keep in mind that when we agree to those terms of service that allow these companies to do such complete surveillance on us, we have no idea what they will do with the information they glean. They might only sell it to marketing companies, who then sell it to whomever they please. They likely also sell that information to governments both domestic and foreign, which use it.

And computers?

They have mics. They have cameras. They connect to the internet. They were made in China, or at least they were assembled there. All of those corporate terms of service are the same for tracking your online movements. I’m sure you can do the math.

But . . . Why? We’re just not that interesting.

The primary reasons to collect, store, and transmit our data from our electronic devices, aside from the criminal activities of hackers, are marketing and espionage.

Marketing

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Notice how we can have a conversation about Bragg’s Organic Vinegar in the range of an electronic device, and an ad for Bragg’s pops up on our computer? That is not a coincidence.

Companies have agreements with each other to share information about users for targeted marketing. In other words, our phone company collects the voice data and shares it with our internet carrier, which shares it with marketing corporations, which share Bragg’s with us.

A more direct connection is when the same company provides us with both phone service and internet service. Whatever is said on the phone almost immediately translates into ads all over the computer because all of the middle players are cut out of the process.

Then there is the marketing power that comes from location-tracking technologies made possible by phones. Location-tracking technologies follow people through stores using the apps on phones.

Stores can tell if someone put on makeup, tried on clothes, stood staring at their favorite cookies for ten minutes, etc. Marketing experts have no scruples when it comes to collecting our data and turning it into money.

See “Retailers Can Track Your Movements Inside Their stores. Here’s How.”

Your data, or shall I say your data, is the pay dirt of the computer age. It is worth more than gold, oil, or lithium. Keep in mind, too, that any data collected for marketing purposes can be used for more nefarious purposes as well.

Espionage

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Many governments, such as the PRC, are hostile to the rest of the world, and particularly to Western governments.

The PRC is one of the most dedicated and most successful governments that practices electronic espionage, and it does so by being the world’s manufacturer of electronic devices.

The Chinese approach to espionage, known as the Thousand Grains of Sand, is different from that of the Western world and other countries.

While the Chinese have professional intelligence services like other countries, what’s different is that the entire Chinese population also has a legal duty to spy for the PRC, from fishermen (see Key Moments in Espionage), to business people, to tourists, to teachers, to students, to nannies and maids.

The Chinese government wants to collect all of the millions of “grains of sand” that it can glean from listening to and watching people around the world, either through human interaction or through electronics.

Why We Absolutely Are So Interesting

These are only a few of the reasons the PRC and other foreign governments want to spy on us in our everyday lives:

  • To hunt down and keep tabs on expatriates
  • To monitor trends in society for the purpose of improving subversion efforts
  • To improve training of deep-cover agents
  • To improve language skills for social media agents
  • To better design propaganda efforts in foreign countries
  • To identify blackmail targets
  • To compile information on important foreigners for the purposes of subversion

I can personally attest to the effectiveness of the PRC’s campaign to listen in on the average American. As a decades-long student of political propaganda, I have seen the Chinese go from being blunt objects to precision tools in their online social media accounts, mastering the language, slang, and word sequencing of their targets to the point that experts have to stop and think twice to pick out the spies.

That is why each and every one of us is far more interesting to foreign governments than we realize.

So in short, if it is an electronic device with a mic and/or a camera, and it connects to the internet, it is spying on us, most likely for the purposes of marketing or espionage.

Any questions? Please put them in the comments below, or just say them out loud or type them into your computer, and we will ask our favorite hackers to pull it off the PRC “third party vendors” to answer them for you. (Kidding! Sort of. . .)

* * * * * *

About Piper

Piper Bayard is an author and a recovering attorney with a college degree or two. She is also a belly dancer and a former hospice volunteer. She has been working daily with her good friend Jay Holmes for the past decade, learning about foreign affairs, espionage history, and field techniques for the purpose of writing fiction and nonfiction. She currently pens espionage nonfiction and international spy thrillers with Jay Holmes, as well as post-apocalyptic fiction of her own.

Jay Holmes is a 47-year veteran of field espionage operations with experience spanning from the Cold War fight against the Soviets, the East Germans, and the various terrorist organizations they sponsored to the present Global War on Terror. He is unwilling to admit to much more than that. Piper is the public face of their partnership.

In Spycraft: Essentials:

Bayard & Holmes share information on espionage history, organizations, firearms of spycraft, tradecraft techniques, honey pots, sleeper agents, the most common foibles of spy fiction, 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.

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28 comments on “Writing Spies: Who and What is Listening, and Why?”

  1. WOWWWW. I always suspected everything written here, but to have it so obviously confirmed is scary. Thank you for a fantastic article! I will be sharing!

    1. Most welcome, Ellen. It's like our food chain, I think. We get the meat from the store and don't really think about the cows and farmers behind it. It's easy to get our electronics and get sucked into using them without thinking of their origins or dangers.

  2. Great article, Piper! I have to say, I only got a few paragraphs into it before pausing briefly to put a piece of masking tape over my laptop's camera lens, LOL. Then I continued reading....

    I can personally attest to the monitoring - one time, I texted my next door neighbor (an avid quilter) asking to borrow her sewing scissors, and we had a brief back-and-forth about the merits of one brand over another, and I said I'd probably buy a pair of my own eventually. I asked her if they made them for lefties, and she said yes. Next time I went online that day to check my yahoo email, there was an ad for LEFT-HANDED sewing scissors in the side-bar ad column. Sigh.

    We have never owned an Alexa device, Nest, or Ring, but it's impossible to be off-grid these days...computers and cell phones are a necessity.

    Makes for great fiction possibilities, though, at least for you contemporary fiction writers (I'm historical).

    Thanks for the info!

  3. That is one scary post. It has always worried me that Google knows where I've been, and even whether I walked or drove! My pc doesn't have a camera, but my tablet and phone do, of course.
    I don't have Alexa or any other device of that type because of this very thing. But it's almost impossible to be totally invisible these days.

  4. I have been shouting this out for a long time, even recently wrote a blog post on this very subject, though not as informative as this one. I always deactivate as many apps as I can and never turn my phone on unless I have to use it, which is seldom. I primarily use a land line. I am more cautious than most people but still have no confidence data is being collected from me without my knowledge or permission. Trust no one.

  5. Oh. my. gosh. This just validates my "crazy" around the house. I'm the one with a shield on my computer camera and I unplug Alexa when I'm home, especially after that time I saw it turn on in the middle of the night for no reason. I have really wanted to know if the rumor of Alexa recording us is true. I had heard it regularly records and keeps conversations, without permission. I had discounted this, but based on some of this article, I wonder. Also, are there any "don't track me" apps that actually work? Thanks for this great post.

    1. I, personally, would not trust any "don't track me" apps. As for Alexa, there are also stories of random people on contact lists suddenly hearing someone else's conversations. In case what the corporations and governments isn't worrisome enough. There has also been talk of making such devices as Alexa so that they call the police on you if they detect anything that registers as being illegal. We live in crazy times.

  6. Scary and makes a lot of sense.

    We knew someone might be listening as we'd see ads about a product we'd chatted about.

    Does it help to turn off the phone at night?

    1. I think it helps to turn off devices and keep them out of the room. They can still be used to spy when they are off if signals can reach them, but the likelihood that anyone would go to THAT much trouble is slim to none for most people.

  7. Yep - I keep the camera on my laptop covered. If I need to use Zoom to talk with my son and grandson in California or something like that, I connect a USB camera and mic to my desktop and unplug them from the computer as soon as I'm done.
    The thought that nags at me is wondering how many Chinese-made components are in our military aircraft, armored vehicles, communications systems, etc., and what back doors might be built into those components to cause that equipment to crash (maybe literally) on signal. I sincerely hope that the manufacturers only use chips and other elements from safe sources, but I don't know whether that's even possible.

    1. That same thought worries Holmes and me, as well. What the Flaming Agnes are we thinking to have ChiComs making our electronics at all? Just saying. As for getting microchips from safe places, corporations have their own thing going, and it doesn't include loyalty to a country. They go with what's cheapest that works.

  8. I love this! Fascinating, and fascinating in our time. Thanks for sharing this. I've said for a long time that I don't like that we're using tech made in China.

  9. Thanks for the great overview. Could you speak to the use by US intelligence agencies of devices (phones, etc.) that have been hardened against the threats you describe. How strong/effective are these? (Writer of cyberthrillers.)

    1. My apologies, but I really can't comment on that except to say that most of the people in the IC use an encryption app called Signal for their personal devices. Personally, I don't trust it to guard against any but the most opportunistic of hackers. No phones are allowed into the government buildings. At all. I can also say that when cyber professionals go to conventions like DefCon, they usually leave all of their regular electronics at home.

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