Everybody's Got the Bug
(Time, December 16, 1966)
After Viet Nam and taxes, the hottest subject in Washington last week was bugs-the electronic, not the crawling variety. Concerned about convictions that may have been obtained with evidence illegally gathered by electronic eavesdropping, the Justice Department was reviewing all federal cases in which bugging might have been used. Lawyers argued that evidence against former Senate Aide Bobby Baker had been gathered by electronic devices; officials admitted that the FBI has been bugging the Dominican embassy since the 1950's; the Supreme Court agreed to rule on the constitutionality of a New York state law that permits police to bug suspects with court approval. And even as the debate raged over the moral and legal implications of electronic bugs, the bugs themselves were growing more versatile and harder to detect.
Working with space-age circuitry and components, engineers have designed new snoopers that are marked improvements on the cigarette-pack transmitters, the spike mikes and the phone taps of a few years ago. Today's bugs rival the imaginative equipment of James Bond novels or the TV fantasies of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Darts & Lights. Manhattan-based Continental Telephone Supply Co., Inc., a leader in the bug- and anti-bugging business, proudly advertises a postage-stamp-size, transistorized "007 Spy Transmitter" that can pick up whispered conversations and broadcast them to a conventional radio receiver located nearby. The 007 is powered by a tiny nickel-cadmium or mercury battery that will last for 60 hours. Another Continental bug looks like an exact copy of a telephone microphone. But substituted for that mike in a standard telephone, it operates indefinitely on the phone's own current and transmits both sides of any telephone conversation to a special receiver as far as 400 ft. away. Continental also offers a 4-in. dart transmitter that can be fired from a carbon-dioxide-powered dart gun into an area otherwise inaccessible to the bugger. Built to withstand the shock of impact, it will embed itself in a wall or tree, pick up nearby sound and radio it back over a range of 300 ft.
Even as space-age missiles fostered the development of anti-missiles, electronic bugs have already spawned a variety of anti-bugs. Continental's most advanced detector is a highly specialized AM and FM receiver rigged with red and green warning lights and an automatically rotating antenna. In a bugged room, its circuits will lock on to offending transmitters, its warning lights will blink and its antenna will point at the bug. Another detector resembles a small transistor radio, but the high-pitched whine from its speaker dies down as its whip antenna is swept toward a hidden bug. For those who do not want to bother locating bugs, a scrambling device concealed in a fountain pen can generate static in any radio-frequency bug within 100 ft., making it impossible for an electronic eavesdropper to listen to or record any transmission.
Just like Tracy. Just as anti-missiles led to the development of the anti-missile missile, the bug detectors and scramblers have spawned a sort of anti-bug bug. Perhaps the most remarkable and virtually undetectable bug on the market is Continental's "infinity transmitter." No bigger than a pair of back-to-back matchmooks, the transmitter can be quickly hidden inside the base of any telephone. Once installed, it can be monitored from thousands of miles away. The properly equipped eavesdropper need only dial the number of the bugged phone from any direct-dialing phone anywhere in the world, and stand ready to send a single-frequency tone down the line before the distant phone rings. That tone, created by blowing a pretuned whistle into the phone's mouthpiece, not only turns on the transmitter, it also prevents the bugged phone from ringing. With its own built-in microphone, the infinity transmitter then picks up any sound in the room, amplifies it and sends it out on the phone lines.
Other incoming callers, trying to reach the bugged phone, receive a busy signal. And because it is making no radio-frequency transmission, the infinity transmitter can be detected only by physical search, not by an anti-bugger.
"None of these devices is really that remarkable," insists Continental President Ben Jamil. Indeed, Continental and its competitors are already working on even subtler devices that will use microscopically small integrated circuits and transmit sound on light beams. "The beauty of this business," says Jamil, "is that if you can image a device, it can probably be built." As if to prove his point last week, he put on sale a "Dick Tracy" wristwatch transmitter that can keep a private eye or a government agent in contact with an accomplice 200 ft. away. The transmitter is so sensitive that it even broadcasts the ticks of a built-in watch that actually tells time.