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Am I being bugged?

Am I being bugged?

It is relatively uncommon for an individual or company to be the subject of electronic eavesdropping. This rarity is due, to a large extent, to the fact that in order for you to be bugged (a listening device placed in such a way as to allow your conversations to be overheard) or tapped (a listening device placed in such a way as to allow your telephone conversations to be overheard), the listener must have A) access to the place to be bugged or the phone to be tapped, and B) some means or recording or place from which to be listening to the conversation.

These sorts of access involve a tradeoff between time and money, either potentially offering the needed access. Because of this, it is often cheaper and easier to suborn some party to the conversations than to go to the risk of placing a bug or tap, listening to the conversations, and then recovering the bug or tap, eliminating evidence of the activity.

Electronic eavesdropping can be divided into two categories: That done by law enforcement and that done by everyone else.

Law enforcement uses legal taps. On rare occasion, illegal taps are done without department authorization or knowledge. Legal taps, done under court order, involve no access to the phone lines in question. Rather, a computer feed is generated by the telephone company. There is no way to detect this sort of tap. Illegal taps are done by hooking into the lines. Information is then gathered, attributed to an informant, which then allows generation of a court order for a legal tap. Bugging by law enforcement requires access to the site to be bugged, with the bugs hidden appropriately. Bugs and taps by other than law enforcement may or may not be legal, depending on the jurisdiction. In some jurisdictions, conversations may be overheard if one party consents, and in some jurisdictions it requires consent of both parties.

Assuming access, how are bugs and taps placed? Taps can be radio taps, where a signal containing the conversation is transmitted, and listened-to or recorded by some other party. Radio signals are fairly easy to detect with the proper equipment and some expertise. Taps can also be wired into the system, either going to an amplifier for direct listening, or going into a tape recorder. These are usually detected by physical inspection, although there is equipment available that will indicate some discontinuity in the wiring. In addition, in a PBX system, the telephone can be programmed to also have the conversation appear on another handset.

Ignoring high-tech attacks such as reading vibrating windows with a laser, and not trying to be all-inclusive, bugs can, with certain telephones, be created by making the handset always live, and listened-to somewhere down the line. Alternatively, radio bugs (again, easily detectable) can be planted. As another choice, some version of a baby monitor can be installed, with the signal being carried through the power line to the listening portion of the monitor. Finally, loudspeakers can be easily used as microphones, so that any PA system can be used for eavesdropping by putting an amplifier and headset somewhere in the wiring. Because of the technical ease of electronic eavesdropping, when discussing anything confidential, there may be an obligation to exercise due diligence in assuring that you are not overheard. This may include, for a corporation, having a room swept for bugs, not having meetings in a room with a PA system, and not allowing telephones in a room where confidential meetings are held. How do you know if you are the subject of electronic eavesdropping? In general, it is revealed by a swing in luck: Competitors or associates are one step ahead of you, seem to know what your are planning to do before you do it, are underbidding you fractionally, or are bringing out new products just before you do. A good rule of thumb in this area is “once is coincidence, twice is a conspiracy.” If you suspect you are the subject of electronic eavesdropping you should bring in a professional to deal with the issue. Keep in mind that you should NOT call them from a phone that might be tapped or a location you suspect may be bugged: While not-quite amusing, we have received calls from clients saying they thought they were being bugged and when we ask where they are calling from, all we get is an embarrassed silence….

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