In 1882 Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, and six years later Almon P. Strowger discovered a way to prevent secret taps of private phone lines.
Today, due to what critics call `loopholes and contradictions' in federal laws and lax enforcement of existing legislation, the sale of telephone intercepting equipment and dozens of other high-tech surveillance devices has grown into a multimillion dollar industry--with many of these `bugging' products increasingly being sold, advertised, mailed and used in violation of state and federal wiretap regulations. `Surveillance was in the hands of the professionals--law enforcement and governmental agencies, corporate spies,' says Morton Bromfield, director of the Wellesley, Massachusetts-based American Privacy Foundation, `now, it's in the hands of amateurs.'
Some twenty years after Title 18 of the U.S. Code was enacted to `protect the rights and expectations of privacy' of Americans by banning the manufacture, sale, advertisement, mailing and use of devices intended to secretly record phone and oral communications, legislators, their staff aides and privacy advocates are giving fresh attention to the sophisticated electronic spy equipment now widely available to the general public.
With public resentment rising about intrusion of privacy, many don't like what they see. For one, California (D) Congressman Ronald V. Dellums--surveillanced during the 1970's COINTELPRO `enemies list' of the Nixon Administration--has acted to stem the flood of devices on the marketplace. Dellums recently introduced H.R. 2551, `The Privacy Assurance Act of 1989' to amend Title 18. Pennsylvania (R) Senator Arlen Specter, also is concerned, noting, `restrictions on the use, availability and the advertisement of intercepting devices are [already] encoded in the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968' (USC Title 18). Specter, and other lawmakers are considering whether to pursue further legislative remedies.
With alarmingly accessible listening and recording devices that make it relatively simple and inexpensive to eavesdrop on conversations up to miles away, privacy advocates say it is no longer the persons of wealth, power and influence whose words and movements are being monitored.
Using state-of-the-art spying equipment, a stranger can hear inside your home miles away from your front door; spouses can secretly track the movements of their husbands or wives in the family car or `bug' the couple's bedroom. Employers can now listen into the phone conversations of every worker on the job. In fact, the ability of average citizens to `bug' each other actually exceeds that of law enforcement officials who can conduct surveillance only under strict court procedures.
Federal and state wiretap laws are being violated, and the privacy rights of tens of thousands of Americans jeopardized by the use of electronic spying equipment that can easily be obtained at retail stores, in so-called `spy shops', and from mail-order companies that blatantly advertise in general market magazines, in slick, upscale catalogues and even in grocery store tabloids. While the number of `bugging victims' is hard to pinpoint--primarily because
often individuals don't know they are being surveillanced, and violators aren't talking--it's estimated the numbers are substantial, and has even spawned another growth industry. Millions of dollars are spent by individuals and corporations on anti-bugging devices and services to electronically `sweep' homes and offices.
Federal legislation--which continues to lag behind the rapidly advancing technology of the surveillance field--is being circumvented with impunity by dozens of electronics companies, while the United States Postal Service and other express mail delivery firms were the unwitting accomplices.
Until apprised of the findings of this report, there were no provisions under Section 124 of the Postal Service's Domestic Mail Manual on non-mailable materials that prohibits the sending of electronic surveillance devices. The Domestic Mail Manual outlines federal postal regulations.
Yet, Section 2512 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code specifically prohibits the mailing of such devices:
`Any person who willfully sends through the mail or sends or carries any electronic, mechanical or other device, knowingly or having reason to know that the design of such device renders it primarily useful for the purpose of the surreptitious interception of wire or oral communications; or knows or has reason to know that such advertisement will be sent through the mail or transferred interstate shall be fined no more than $10,000 or imprisoned not more than five years, or both'.
Alerted, Congressman William Ford, Chairman of the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee directed an investigation of the availability of surveillance devices through the mails. Insisting that federal wiretap statutes prohibited individuals from mailing devices and that a surveillance device was not in itself nonmailable matter, Postmaster General Anthony Frank nonetheless ordered the Domestic Mail Manual revised to conform with the twenty year old provisions of Section 2512. Effective September 17, 1989, customers at all post offices were notified that mailing surveillance devices is unlawful.
U.S. legislators and privacy rights advocates have expressed anger over this growing cloak-and-dagger industry--and a resultant proliferating anti-bugging devices industry--and have identified several sources for its spread. Some have blamed the variance between federal laws and postal codes for the mailing of surveillance equipment, while others say there are `loopholes and contradictions' in the outdated federal wiretap laws that retailers exploit when marketing their products.
One glaring contradiction is part of provisions of Section 2511 of Title 18, enacted primarily to authorize law enforcement officials to conduct `consensual monitoring', the placing of a listening device on a police informant, for example, to gather evidence during an investigation. Paragraph (2)(d) of Section 2511 [section on non-law enforcement recordings] allows secret recording when one person is a party to the conversation and gives prior consent--the doctrine of `one party consent'--without distinguishing who the party is (the `taper' or the
`tapee'), even though the basic premise of the Wiretap Law is to outlaw secret recordings. [Some states have tighter restrictions. In California, Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, for example, it is illegal to tape a telephone conversation unless all parties give consent]
The `loophole' is widely exploited. One advertisement in a recent publication, showing a man eavesdropping through a wall using a `Super Ear Mini-Stethoscope', contains a misleading disclaimer. It warns that voice `interception without the permission of at least one party [one party consent] is illegal.' The ad cites Section 2511, Title 18, U.S. Code.
In fact, Section 2511, paragraph (2)(d), says only one party needs to know that a conversation is being recorded or monitored providing the recording `is not used to commit a criminal or tortious act.'
By partially and misleadingly quoting that section of the law, critics say manufacturers effectively allow consumers to buy and use such equipment and cite Section 2511 as a defense: one can secretly record a conversation and claim he or she is the party who gave consent, although the other party had no knowledge or gave consent, which is a violation of the law's basic provisions against intercepting conversations.
But, critics say, the major contributing factor is lax enforcement by local-level prosecutors, who are often unaware of the specifics of the wiretap codes or consider it a low-priority offense, even when retailers blatantly advertise the purpose of their products. Example: A Phoenix, Arizona mail-order firm sells a Recording Briefcase for $599.000 with an ad reading, `This handsome all-leather briefcase permits the full use of the briefcase while simultaneously providing clandestine and surreptitious recording capabilities.'
Recently, groups of `bugging victims' appeared on local radio and TV talk programs around the country and on the nationally televised `Oprah Winfrey Show', `USA Today on TV', and `Geraldo' revealing for the fist time the scope of surveillance activity among average citizens. One victim, Shirley Harris, a North Carolina school teacher, said she thought bugging and spying were confined to communist countries. That was until she and other teachers at her school discovered a listening device planted in an employee lounge. She claims it was placed there by the school principal.
`What kind of society do you end up with when everyone mistrusts everyone else?,' asked Professor Gary Marx, a sociologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. `Where does it stop?' He said the widespread use of surveillance equipment is a result of the `declining morals of the 1980s.'
Rockville, Mayland private investigator Maureen Gawler, who is knowledgeable of both widespread spying by estranged mates and corporate surveillance, and advises clients against it, agrees. `I think it's a real sad commentary on American society. It's incredibly ironic that when Martin Luther King Jr. was harassed by J. Edgar Hoover--and my father was an FBI agent--for many years with legal wiretaps, we find it reprehensible and horrific. But what we're seeing here is that you can take the father of your child or your long-time
mate and employ completely illegal and unethical practices, and people try to justify it.'
In Pennsylvania, State Representative Ron Gamble is proposing to amend the state's stringent wiretap laws to require that all voice-activated recorders contain a label warning a user that it is illegal to tape someone without their knowledge, as well as the penalty for such a violation.
The Gamble bill would also require a beeping mechanism which would sound each time the device begins and finishes recording, as well as civil penalties against manufacturers. The legislation has numerous co-sponsors.
A Pennsylvania State Police source said divorce lawyers commonly advise clients to use voice-activated recorders or other devices against estranged mates to blackmail or to gain a larger divorce settlement. While `bedroom extortion' is not a new wrinkle, the sophisticated voice-activated recorders eliminate the haphazardness factor. Such a recorder can be concealed, according to electronics expert Robert Habercost, `and wait, triggering without the user having to reveal it's in the room, and in fact, not even having to be in the room when the recorder activates.'
The increasing use of these devices to `get somehting' on spouses and partners is of increasing concern to sociologists, criminologists and prosecutors.
Allegheny County Pennsylvania Assistant District Attorney Paul Skirtich--one of the few activist prosecutors--says, `in my experience, the reason [for surveillance] is usually to gain some kind of leverage.
`No one likes to talk about it, though. This is America's dirty little secret.'
Skirtich investigated Radio Shack for possible criminal violations over sales of a suction device, the Phone Pickup Coil--commonly called an induction coil--which is fastened to a telephone receiver and can be used to secretly record conversations. He also inquire into the sale of a telephone monitoring device, which he called, `clearly an intercepting device.' In August 1989, as a result of the probe, Radio Shack voluntarily agreed to remove the products from 17 of its retail outlets in the county. Skirtich is now looking into the flow of apparently illegal advertisements for devices that commonly appear in publications.
The range of publications which either recently or currently advertise the devices--in apparent violation of Title 18, U.S.Code--is startiling:
Miniature FM Transmitters. Easy to assemble kit. One-by-one and three inches. $19.95. Other transmitters and bugging equipment. Los Angeles, California.
Snooper Phone Infinity Transmitter. Amherst, N.H.
Ultra Sensitive Directional Sound Amplifier Picks up Signals 200 Feet Away! Overhear private conversations. It's light enough so the microphone can be mounted on your binoculars. $69.95. Barrington, New Jersey.
Telephone Taps or Room Monitors. Range Unlimited. Catalogue $3.00. Muskogee, Oklahoma.
Micro Bugs. Highly advanced bugging equipment. Ultra small transmitters, concrete mics, telephone, pen bugs and much more! Catalogue $2.00. Cleveland, Ohio.
Soldier of Fortune:
Spy on Your Enemies for $24.95. The FM-5 is a sensitive little electronic bug that transmits every sound and whisper up to 1/4 mile to your FM radio. El Cajon, California.
The model WAT-50 miniature FM transmitter picks up a whisper 50 feet away. Simply snap the unit on top of a 9V battery and you can hear every sound in an entire house up to 1 mile away! Only $29.99 tax included. All orders shipped by U.S. Mail COD. Add $4.00. Bedford Hills, New York.
How to Get Anything on Anybody: Most Dangerous Book Ever Published-NBC. You can duplicate CIA tricks; save on surveillance gear; listen thru walls; chemically read thru envelopes. $33.00. Boulder, Colorado.
No radio transmitter, no matter how well hidden can escape detection by the Hound Dog, an advanced electronic instrument designed for the sole purpose of locating hidden transmitters. $195.00. Also, the Super Power FM-Transmitter. Operates up to quarter mile away on your radio. Melbourne, Florida.
Surveillance. Secret devices. Bug detectors. Restricted books. All are available. Salt Lake City, Utah.
Infinite Ear. Listen into your home or business from any phone in the world! $249.00.
Electronic Tracking Devices. From $1,995.00.
Audio Telescope. High quality long range listening device. Can be hooked to a recorder. Will hear `a whisper' over 100 yards. $349.00.
Body Microphone. Picks up sounds from 10-15 feet away. Small size makes it very comfortable to wear without noticeable bulk. Uses include monitoring rooms or buildings. $499.00 Napa, California.
Recording Briefcase. This handsome all-leather briefcase permits the full use of the briefcase while simultaneously providing clandestine and surreptitious recording capabilities. $599.00. Phoenix, Arizona.
Hands on Electronics:
Voice disguisers. FM-Bugs. Telephone Transmitters. Phone Snoops. More. Tempe. Arizona.
Strange stuff. Complete items. Plans, kits. Laser eavesdropping, Hidden Weapons, Bugging and Counter-measure sources. Lowell, North Carolina.
Detectives, experimenters. Exciting new plans. Hard to find micro and restricted devices. Large Catalogue. $5.00. Augusta, Georgia.
Electronics Kits! Voice Disguisers! FM Bugs! Phone Snoops! Telephone Transmitters! Catalogue $1.00. Tempe, Arizona
Detection-Surveillance, Debugging Kits. Latest High-Tech Catalogue $2.00. Phoeniz, Arizona.
Telephone Listening Device. Record telephone conversations in your office or home. Starts automatically when phone is answered. Records both sides of conversations. Stops recorder when phone is hung up. $19.95 each. Melbourne, Florida.
Room Surveillance Telephone. This is a normal functioning telephone except it has a secret built in room monitor. Only you can call and monitor all room conversation, using a secret code, and never be detected! $175.00 each. Muskogee, Oklahoma.
Life Force Technologies Ltd., Aspen, Colorado. (Catalogue)
Expose if you've ever wanted to know what's inside before you've slit the envelope, package or warpping, Expose gives you clear vision. A liberal spray of Expose turns opaque paper translucent for about 30 to 60 seconds for viewing. Read through one, usually two sheets of paper. Then, it returns to its original state with no markings, discoloration or odor. $25.00.
Super Ear Mini-Stethoscope. Think of the many ways you could use the Super Ear mini-stethoscope. We tested them all, and the results are excellent. For less conspicuous use (as shown) detach head set and snap in the single ear piece. $375.00.
Recording Briefcase. Designed for undercover communications. Exclusively ours, it's wired for use with either your own cassette tape recorder or our 5-hour-per-side recorder. Simply slide the initial-plate, the hidden microphone (in keylock) is activated to record conversations--covertly and silently. Recording and other functions including auto-stop are completely silent. The recorder won't get in the way of your important papers and other paraphernalia and--most importantly--it is hidden from view! $995.00.
Teletaf Remote Monitoring Device. This monitoring device lets you listen in through your regular line from any phone in the world--and the telephone dialed will not ring! The sensitive microphone will pick up a whisper
35 feet away. Switch off upon your return for normal telephone operation.
Audio Binoculars. Put on the lightweight highly sensitive stereo headphones, aim the binoculars, adjust the volume, and hear what you've put in focus! Hands free microphone wand amplifies even a whisper at 200 feet away. $130.00.
Telephone Recorder Patch. Adapts your tape recorder to either single or multiple line telephones. A simple plug-in installation between phone and recorder does the trick! $49.95.
Anazing Electronics Products. FM Transmitter 3 mile Range. $49.50.
Snooper Phone Infinity Transmitter. $169.50.
Automatic Phone Recording Device. $24.50.
See in Total Darkness IR Viewer. $349.50. Amherst, New Hampshire.
FM Transmitter. Model WTT-20 is only the size of a dime, yet transmits both sides of a telephone conversation to any FM Radio with crystal clarity. Complete kit, $29.95 Bedford Hills, New York.
Also, Radio Shack, Crutchfield and others sell Telephone Answering Machines featuring room monitoring capabilities, allowing an individual to listen to activites in the room where the machine is located from any remote location.
The Sun (Tabloid):
Phone Recorder Adapter. Record calls automatically. Connects to your phone and recorder. Starts recording when phone is lifted. Stops when phone is hung up. Phoenix, Arizona.
Despite the sophistication of many of the devices, `this is kiddie stuff,' according to Bromfield, regarded as one of the foremost experts on privacy and surveillance issues. Bromfield points to industrial espionage, `political tapping', and surveillance among private sector corporations who use `super high-tech equipment' as the most serious threat to global privacy.
`Americans have been lulled into thinking of surveillance as protection,' said Bromfield, who has lectured world-wide as director for the past 18 years of the American Privacy Foundation. `There is an inseparable link between privacy and freedom. If you lose your privacy, you have lost your freedom.'
Bromfield said he is particularly concerned about the emphasis placed on computer security above telephone privacy, noting that computers are often linked to telephones. `Computers store mostly historic records. But a wire [phone] tapped businessman or politician is explaining what he is doing, his reasons, his intentions', Bromfield said.
`Tapping into a computer lacking such vital information is like robbing a graveyard. The consequences of lost computer privacy cannot destroy one's freedom. Wiretapping the conversations of our leaders in government, manipulating our centralized bureaucracy, can simply lead to domination, the central warning of renowned futurist George Orwell.'
The most sophisticated of spy devices now used by industrial and political spies will eventially `trickle down' and become available to the average citizen as technology advances, Bromfield warns.
If enacted, though, the Dellums' bill would render most of the devices on the market useless and unavailable by removing the loophole now exploited by manufacturers to market the devices, and also removing the impediment to enforcement of wiretap laws. Additionally, the Dellums' bill would--for the first time--provide consumers with the mechanism to bring civil actions against manufacturers, which will provide a chilling effect to marketing the devices.
Unless steps are taken immediately to curb this influence and the unchecked proliferation of eavesdropping equipment, sociologists like MIT's Gary Marx are concerned about the implications. Dr. Marx uses this story to illustrate his point. `This has to do with the creeping nature of surveillance. It's said, by cooks, that if you take a frog and you put in into hot water, it will immediately jump up. But what happens if you put the frog in cold water, and you slowly turn up the heat?
`I think that applies to the spread and justifications for these surveillance devices. Each one--standing alone, with a persuasive person's arguing--can be justified. But if you look at the big picture, the totality, you end up with a very different, a frightening situation'.