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Want to keep business private? Then conduct negotiations on a beach; office walls have ears
By Shari Roan
The American Embassy in Moscow isn’t the only place where it’s difficult to hold a private conversation.
According to a local private investigator and former Justice Department official, the business world is also vulnerable to electronic eavesdropping.
“The standard line is don’t talk on the phone; have your conversation on the sand in the middle of the beach,” says Thomas G. Martin, a private investigator based in Orange and former agent for the U.S. Department of Justice.
Although electronic surveillance procedures such as wiretapping and bugging are illegal, electronic advances allow eavesdropping in almost any circumstance. And listening devices are, apparently, easy to make or buy, says Martin. Wiretapping usually means the interception of telephone conversations by listening devices connected to phone wires or placed nearby. The interception of non-telephone conversations is called bugging.
“It is illegal to do any type of electronic surveillance,” says Martin. “To me, it’s unconscionable behavior, and we don’t condone it. But I know for a fact that they’re out there because we’ve found them.”
Martin, who operates Martin Investigative Services in Orange, says he is frequently hired by local business people to check offices for listening devices. While national security is at stake in the bugging of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, discussions about interest rates, stock purchases and new product designs are the target of corporate espionage.
“In the United States, bankers, lawyers, business people are making decisions that will affect their business,” says Martin. “Everyone is a possible candidate. It is incredible to me that some individuals don’t protect themselves.”
Illegal eavesdropping devices range from sophisticated to crude, says Martin. Certain types of bugs can eavesdrop from behind walls. Directional microphones can pick up sounds from several hundred feet. Miniature microphones and transmitters can send messages to radio receivers.
Other eavesdropping methods include body-worn bugs and devices that allow the user to monitor the numbers dialed from a particular telephone. One of the newest threats to an individual’s right to privacy is the crime of hot-wiring a telephone.
“There are ways to hot-wire a phone without taking anything out or putting something in,” says Martin. “The state-of-the-art of monitoring telephones and voices in a room is quite sophisticated at this time. However, (the devices) need not be sophisticated. Something simple, powered by a 9-volt battery, may be enough.”
Bugging devices can be battery operated or plugged into power lines. Battery-operated devices are easily planted in phones, under tables or behind pictures and can pick up sounds within 400 feet.
“Basically they will pick up conversation and transmit that communication to a receiver,” says Martin. “It’s a microphone. You are not talking about a real sophisticated piece of technology.”
More sophisticated bugs are those that are wired into power lines, such as those built into the new U.S. facility in Moscow. These devices are more difficult to detect because they can be turned off to escape detection.
Listening devices found in the embassy are probably very elaborate, says Martin. Security officials at the State Department will not discuss the technical aspects of the listening devices found in the embassy buildings.
“I’m not the least bit surprised that the (embassy) building is full of bugs,” says Martin. “Having visited about 40 embassies around the world, I’m a little surprised they would have new, young Marines in such a sensitive post.”
While U.S. officials are considering tearing down the new U.S. Embassy buildings under construction in Moscow, which have been found to be riddled with built-in bugs, there are effective countermeasures to corporate espionage, says Martin. Investigators can check for listening devices by visual inspection, scanning rooms with electronic devices which pick up radio signals and checking telephone lines for an additional power drain.
While Martin says expensive listening devices can be found in corporate offices, they usually aren’t hidden very well. Bugs are typically found in telephone mouthpieces and under tables in conference rooms. One simple way business executives can protect themselves is by equipping their offices with telephones that feature small, square mouthpieces, instead of the round mouthpiece that can be twisted off easily.
“In the business world, I would say (spies) are very sophisticated in their devices and very elementary in their placement,” says Martin.
Listening devices can be slipped into a building on almost any object or on any person, says Martin. Such devices are either homemade from parts that can be obtained at any electronics shop or are somehow diverted from legal use. The 1934 Federal Communications Act prohibits the interception and public disclosure of any wire or radio communication. And the Supreme Court ruled in 1937 that evidence obtained by wiretapping cannot be used in federal court. But in 1968, Congress passed a law allowing the use of wiretaps and bugging in certain crime investigations.
Although controversial, listening devices are still produced and used legally by some law enforcement agencies.
Because corporate espionage is so common, however, some people are probably ignorant of the fact that the devices are usually illegal, says Martin.
But, he says: “With the embassy being compromised, I think you’ll see legislation to tighten up the use of these devices . . . It may help the business community in heightening their awareness and getting on track in the ’80s to address this. Or someday, they may get burned by their lack of education.”
Fly on the wall
Although they are illegal in most cases, electronic listening devices come in all shapes, sizes and levels of sophistication. Some of the methods include:
Hidden transmitters that can be planted in pictures, desks and walls. Tone-activated phone line microphones that allow an eavesdropper to dial a number, take over a phone line (the phone does not ring) and listen to conversations anywhere in the room.
The relatively new technique of hot-wiring telephones to listen in on conversations on a particular telephone. A telephone can be hot-wired in minutes. It is difficult to detect because it involves only minor changes in the internal wiring of the phone.