All About Wiretaps and Bugs

Frequently asked questions on covert audio surveillance

In this article we'll look at some of the ins and outs of wiretapping and bugs, including definitions of both, distinctions among different types of audio surveillance tools, and the legal ramifications of this type of covert surveillance.

What is Wiretapping?

Wiretapping is a method by which one listens in on and/or records telephone, telegraph, or teletype communications. The process of wiretapping involves tying into a wire or other conductor that is used for communications. Examples of wires include telephone lines, PBX (private branch exchange) cables, a local area network, a CCTV video system, an alarm system, or any other communications medium. The ultimate goal of a wiretap is to obtain high-quality information without being discovered by the source of the information. Please keep in mind that radiated signals can be easy to detect using the right bug-detecting equipment.

What Are the Different Types of Wiretaps Out There?

There are many different kinds of wiretaps on the market that generally fall under one of four categories: "hardwired," "soft," "record," and "transmit."

A hardwired wiretap must be physically attached to a given communications device; therefore, anyone who wishes to install a hardwired wiretap must have physical access to the device. Wires are attached to the wires on the communications device, and the signal is then sent back to a secure location. Once detected, this kind of wiretap is fairly easy to trace back and is very popular among police departments throughout the United States.

A soft wiretap is generally preferred to hard wiretapping, due to the ease with which information can be obtained and the fact that it is more difficult to find in a phone company's system. Sometimes known as a REMOBS (short for "remote observation"), someone with access to a telephone company's system (or someone like a hacker or intelligence agent who can get such access) can set up a soft wiretap by modifying the software used to run that system.

A recording wiretap is simply a recording device wired into the phone line, very similar to a hardwired wiretap. Due to the ease of use of recording wiretaps, they are popular with amateur spies and private investigators. However, the fact that they must be plugged directly into the phone line and physically retrieved in order to harvest information makes them very easy to find and therefore dangerous to use.

A transmit wiretap is a small RF (radio frequency) transmitter that picks up a signal, either from two wires or through a concealed microphone. Since transmit wiretaps are so small, they can even be placed inside a cell phone to record audio, eliminating the need most wiretaps have for the presence of a physical line. Despite the fact that the RF signal that this type of wiretap gives off can easily be detected by the right [[bug-sweeping]] equipment, the transmit wiretap remains quite popular.

What is a "Bug?"

A "bug" is a colloquial term generally used to refer to a transmit wiretap equipped with a microphone. A body-worn bug, also known as a wire, can be equipped and used to gain information from an unwitting person in the vicinity of the wearer. Some more advanced bugs can even enable their user to obtain information from hundreds of feet or even miles away.

What Are the Different Types of Bugs Out There?

There are five different kinds of bugs: acoustic, ultrasonic, RF (radio frequency), optical, and hybrid. Acoustic, ultrasonic, RF, and optical bugs are distinct, specific types of bugs, and hybrids are simply a combination of any two types of bug.

An acoustic bug, the most low-tech of all bugs, can be any non-electronic device used to observe communication with the naked ear. Examples of acoustic bugs include drinking glasses, stethoscopes, or rubber tubes, either pressed against or inserted into an area in which there's a sound leak.

Ultrasonic bugs use a technique by which they gather sound, convert it into an audio signal above the range of human hearing, then allow it to be intercepted and converted back to audible sound.

An RF bug can be placed in an area and/or inside a device, to transmit audio via radio frequency. RF bugs are quite easy to detect, but they are inexpensive and difficult to trace back to the person who planted it.

Optical bugs convert sound into an optical pulse or beam of light. Because they are highly expensive and very easy to detect, optical bugs are rarely used. Examples of optical bugs include active and passive laser listening devices.

Is Wiretapping Illegal?

In the United States, wiretapping is subject to a number of regulations. On a federal level, it is illegal to divulge information obtained by intercepting messages sent over an interstate communications carrier line, as per the Federal Communications Act of 1934, and federal courts generally do not allow wiretap evidence to be used.

State regulations of wiretapping vary, and your best bet is to research wiretapping laws for your home state for the most accurate information. In some states, intercepting messages without consent of the parties concerned is a crime. Some states allow wiretapping/bugging only when a state judge has issued a warrant to authorize them. Even so, some states do not allow evidence obtained by wiretap to be used in court, even if the tap was obtained by legal and authorized means.