A covert listening device, more commonly known as a bug or a wire, is usually a combination of a miniature radio transmitter with a microphone. The use of bugs, called bugging, is a common technique in surveillance, espionage and in police investigations.
- A wire
- Remotely activated mobile phone microphones
- Automobile computer systems
- Examples of use
- Listening devices and the UK law
- Legal requirements of listening and recording device use
- Legal use of listening and recording devices
- Illegal use of listening and recording devices
A bug does not have to be a device specifically designed for the purpose of eavesdropping. For instance, with the right equipment, it is possible to remotely activate the microphone of cellular phones, even when a call is not being made, to listen to conversations in the vicinity of the phone.
A "wire" is a device that is hidden or concealed under a person's clothes for the purpose of covertly listening to conversations in close proximity to the person wearing the "wire". Wires are typically used in police sting operations in order to gather information about suspects.
The act of "wearing a wire" refers to a person knowingly recording the conversation or transmitting the contents of a conversation to a police listening post. Usually, some sort of device is attached to the body in an inconspicuous way, such as taping a microphone wire to their chest. "Wearing a wire" by undercover agents is typical plot element in gangster and police related movies and television shows.
A stereotypical movie scene is someone being suspected of "wearing a wire" and the criminals tearing the suspect's shirt open hoping to reveal the deception.
When infiltrating a criminal organization a mole may be given a "wire" to wear under his or her clothes. The wire device transmits to a remote location where law enforcement agents monitor what is being said. Wearing a wire is viewed as risky since discovery of a hidden wire by a criminal could lead to violence against the mole or other retaliatory responses.
Remotely activated mobile phone microphones
Mobile phone (cell phone) microphones can be activated remotely, without any need for physical access. This "roving bug" feature has been used by law enforcement agencies and intelligence services to listen in on nearby conversations. A United States court ruled in 1988 that a similar technique used by the FBI against reputed former Gulfport, Mississippi cocaine dealers after having obtained a court order was permissible.
Automobile computer systems
In 2003 the FBI obtained a court order to surreptitiously listen in on conversations in a car through the car's built-in emergency and tracking security system. A panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals prohibited the use of this technique because it involved deactivating the device's security features.
Examples of use
Listening devices and the UK law
The use of listening devices is permitted under UK law providing that they are used in compliance with Data Protection and Human Rights laws. If a government body or organisation intends to use listening or recording devices they must follow the laws put in place by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). It is usually permitted to record audio covertly in a public setting or one's own home, providing one is not doing so to collect confidential information, and of course it is illegal to do so for unlawful purposes. Members of the public using listening devices should check with a legal expert before doing so.
Legal requirements of listening and recording device use
It is illegal to use listening or recording devices that are not permitted for public use. Individuals may only use listening or recording devices within reasonable privacy laws for legitimate security and safety reasons. Many people use listening devices in their own property to capture evidence of excessive noise in a neighbour complaint, which is legal in normal circumstances.
Legal use of listening and recording devices
It is legal to use listening or recording devices in public areas, in an office or business area, or in one's own home. Many people use listening devices to record evidence or even just to take notes for their own reference.
Illegal use of listening and recording devices
It is illegal to use listening devices on certain Military band and Air Band UHF and FM frequencies - people in the past who have not followed this law have been fined over £10,000. The is because the use of a radio transmission bug that transmits on restricted frequencies contravenes the Telecommunications Act and is illegal. It is also against the law to place a listening or recording device in someone else’s home. Due to privacy and human rights laws, using a listening or recording device to intrude on the reasonable expectation of privacy of an individual is highly illegal, i.e. placing gadgets in someone’s home or car to which one does not have permitted access, or in a private area such as a bathroom.