- The Washington Times - Monday, January 28, 2002

Years ago, when I wrote a police column, I talked occasionally to Jim Ross of Ross Engineering Associates (www.rosseng.com) in Manassas about techniques of electronic surveillance. He actually performs countermeasures, often for companies that suspect they have been bugged. I went to his shop the other day to talk to him about the current state of bugging technology.
Interesting stuff. And it doesn't match what you see in movies.
For one thing, the most common bug is your own office telephone. A bit of terminology helps here. Technically speaking, a "bug" picks up all ambient noise in a room, such as conversations. A "tap" intercepts whatever goes over wires, such as telephone conversations or faxes.That is, one bugs a room, but taps a phone line.
A phone bug works this way. A telephone has a microphone and at least one speaker. (Some have a second small speaker that emits the ringing tone.) It is easy enough, says Mr. Ross, to modify a phone so that the microphone picks up whatever is said in a room and sends it out of the room over unused connectors in the phone line.Somewhere along the path of the wires you have to establish a listening post, perhaps in the telephone-equipment room for the building.
"The victim provides the wires, his telephone provides the power, and almost nobody thinks of the telephone as a threat. It's a friendly piece of equipment that connects you to the world," says Mr. Ross.
Speakers can be dangerous, he says. They work both ways: A speaker is also a microphone. When your stereo puts power into the coils of your speakers, the fields caused by the coils make the magnet at the bottom of the speaker cone vibrate, which makes the speaker cone vibrate, and so you hear Little Richard or Berlioz.But if the stereo if off, sound you discussing business plans, for example wiggles the cone, which wiggles the magnet, which induces a signal in the wires leading out of the speaker. If the bad guys can tap this signal, with an unobtrusive wire or by other means, you just went public.
Talk to Mr. Ross, and you'll notice that he frequently mentions RadioShack, which has been called "your friendly neighborhood spy store."It doesn't mean to be. It's just that lots of common electronic gadgets double as spy gear.
For example, he tells of the man who, listening to his radio at home, heard the unmistakable sounds of a couple in a rather intimate moment coming through his radio.Then he recognized his neighbor's voice.It turned out that the neighbor had installed a radio-based baby monitor. Apparently the walls were thin, and the signal was strong enough to travel between the two houses.
The story is amusing, but baby monitors have been successfully used for bugging.Think about those portable microphones that rock stars use when prancing about the stage and shrieking. They are legal, unintended bugs, though not necessarily ideal ones. (The batteries don't last.)
However, says Mr. Ross, the movie idea that bugs are little secret radios just isn't true.He says he very seldom sees one. They need batteries or to be connected to a power line.They are very easy to find with a spectrum analyzer, which amounts to a sophisticated radio receiver.
Most people think, he says, of high-tech approaches that they've heard about in movies or spy novels. The laser-listener is an example.While you are discussing your deep dark secrets, I am across the street shining a laser invisibly on your window.Your speech makes the glass vibrate, modulating the laser beam.When it bounces back to me, I can extract your voice from it.
It's a nice theory and has worked.But it's not a great choice, says Mr. Ross. "For one thing, the beam has to bounce back to me or it doesn't do me any good.If I'm not exactly level with you and directly across from your window say I'm on the fifth floor and you are on the third the beam will bounce down to the street instead of back to me. And wind on a window sounds like a freight train. But I always check because customers want me to." Oh well.
He also talked about supertiny surveillance cameras and what you can see with them, but we're out of space.We'll cover that later.


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