Daily Archives: July 8, 2009

Snooping, and Tapping, and Bugging

Ever wonder how real life cops and PIs gather information electronically? Need some cool ways for your sleuth to get the goods on the bad guy? My guest today is Technical Surveillance Counter-Measure (TSCM) technician and Austin, Texas Private Investigator Louis L. Akin. He began his formal technical countermeasures training at Texas A&M School of Engineering Extension Center in 1987 and continued training at the Jarvis International Intelligence Academy in Tulsa and at REI International. He has testified in court as an expert on technical surveillance countermeasures and for 22 years has performed level 3 and 4 sweeps.


His first involvement with such sweeps came when a woman entered his office, complaining that she was convinced something unusual had happened where she worked and that her employer was eavesdropping on her. She worked at 3-Mile Island and it turned out she was right on both counts.

In March 2007, Akin was awarded the Meritorious Service Award for Investigative Excellence by the Texas Association of Licensed Investigators for discovering a wiretap installed on the telephone line of an Austin woman. The discovery led to the arrest and conviction of a 55-year old Austin contractor who had stalked, harassed, and psychologically tortured ex-girlfriends for over 20-years. Based on evidence that Akin developed, the contractor was convicted of wiretapping and burglary and sentenced to five years in prison.

Investigator Akin has written articles on TSCM for the American College of Forensic Examiners, the National Association of Criminal Defense Investigators, The Texas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and other magazines including the Texas Investigator.

DPL: How many ways can an eavesdropper bug you?

LA: The ways are nearly endless and widely varied, from light switches or lamps that transmit audio, to cameras that see through pinholes, to hook switch bypasses that remotely turn on your telephone or spyware that remotely turns on your cell phone, to key loggers that allow someone miles away to watch everything you do on your computer screen, to drop bugs that transmit voice or recorders that record only when you speak. And then there’s the sophisticated stuff like Styrofoam cups in coffee machines that transmit voice or FET mikes (field effect transmitters) that can be sewn into clothes or painted on walls. And then there is GPS tracking that is becoming too popular for a nation that values privacy. The proliferation of bugging equipment over the last thirty years is a direct result of the huge budgets that law enforcement agencies have been granted to spend on toys. The cops used to have to hire private investigators to plant taps and bugs. Now every police department in any mid to large sized city has officers trained to plant bugs and taps and many of those plants are legally installed, or at least they were before the Patriot Act removed accountability. The 1970’s movie “The Conversation” by Francis Ford Copula with Gene Hackman and Harrison Ford is the best film ever done on the world of eavesdroppers and many techniques used in that movie are still employed.

DPL: What’s the difference between a tap and a bug?

LA: A tap is placed on a land line telephone, that is, the kind that have a wire running to a telephone pole. A bug is a transmitter that is hidden on a premises or person or vehicle to pickup audio. The software put on cell phones is considered spyware by most. Cameras and videos are a big part of eavesdropping surveillance and are more widely used than straight audio in government applications. One of the coolest video setups I ever saw was literally a pin-sized speck in the middle of a mirror over a dresser in a hotel room. You could look in the mirror all day without seeing it until we detected it with equipment.

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