How can I sweep for bugs at work?
February 14, 2014 8:03 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to find out if there are recording devices in offices at our workplace.

The backstory: there is a colleague at work (Bob) who apparently is becoming increasingly unstable. Over the past few years, Bob has repeatedly stated that there is a conspiracy against him among our colleagues, that he has the dirt on coworkers that will prove this, and that he will expose this wrongdoing. He has more than once said that he will install surveillance equipment to uncover this conspiracy. He regularly records conversations he participates in. Recently he presented us with a recording of a conversation that took place at work between several colleagues that he said proved the conspiracy; this was a private conversation at which Bob was not present. It's not clear how he obtained this recording. It's possible he recorded it from outside (through the door?) somehow, but it's also possible that he has in fact installed recording devices in people's offices, as he has repeatedly threatened to do. I am well aware that it sounds paranoid to think that offices may have bugs planted in them, but in this case there is enough evidence to make this a realistic possibility.

The question: what steps can we take to sweep for bugs or in some way determine whether recording devices are present in offices at my workplace?

The request to answer the question: many who read this will want to point out that the larger problem Bob will not be solved technologically. Trust me that we know this and are working on it in every way we can think of. The upper levels of our workplace are considering how to handle Bob; legal counsel is involved; the police have been called and are investigating. The appearance of recordings of what were thought to be private conversations is quite unsettling, and my colleagues would like to know whether or not everything they say is being recorded in their offices. Unfortunately the police have indicated that bug sweeping is not something they can do.

This is a technological question specifically about detecting listening devices. Please only answer this question if you have information about how to find recording devices.

This question is anonymous because the situation is a legal mess.
posted by anonymous to Technology (19 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
The easiest answer is to install your own, and watch Bob. Counter intelligence is usually just the same thing as intel, only you know more than the other guy.
posted by bensherman at 8:10 AM on February 14, 2014

I used to use Optoelectronics' products over a decade ago. It looks like their line has expanded even more.
posted by MonsieurBon at 8:11 AM on February 14, 2014

One thing I would do is to use my cell phone to identify hidden cameras that might be using IR to illuminate the scene. Here's something about using the user-facing camera on an iPhone to "see" the IR led (the other camera has an IR filter on it, apparently).

Obviously, you (or the police) should search the room where the recorded conversation took place, which may give you (or the police) more indication of how he's recording. If the recording was relatively clear, he probably wasn't recording through a door; if it was relatively quiet, he probably wasn't putting a bug in an air vent.

And unless he knew that particular conversation was going to take place at that time, it may be that he's just leaving devices around on a fishing expedition.

Glad legal and the police are involved. Be safe.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:14 AM on February 14, 2014

Well a Google search of "How to check for listening devices" led me to this eHow which in turn pointed out that there are firms that do TSCM (Technical Surveillance Counter Measures). Perhaps there's one in your area you could hire?
posted by emjaybee at 8:19 AM on February 14, 2014

Here is more info as to what TSCM involves; apparently private investigators also get involved in this sort of issue.
posted by emjaybee at 8:22 AM on February 14, 2014

The NYC Spy Store carries some RF detection equipment which might help you sweep for bugs. You could try giving them a call and describe what you need (leaving out all the Bob-crazy details) and they could assist you in getting the right equipment.
posted by bedhead at 8:23 AM on February 14, 2014

My guess is that he is not using radio bugs, but instead a digital recorder or phone with a recording app running. No amount of RF/radio sweeping will catch those.

A camera / nanny cam will catch him planting and retrieving these types of devices.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 8:32 AM on February 14, 2014 [12 favorites]

I think you would just hire a security firm who would sweep the office for you. I feel like this isn't necessarily something any random person can do. You could always google how to sweep for surveillance bugs since it seems unlikely to find people with experience doing this. I do think usually one would just hire outside professionals to do it for you. I'd say the likeliest explanation is Bob heard you guys through the door or a vent and recorded it since he sounds like a snoop with no shame. But you could just leave a camera running, say, at your desk if that's where the conversation took place because if he did use surveillance, it would probably unsophisticated and require him to go back to the recorder and check it. Hopefully the situation with Bob gets resolved in a way that is OK for everyone.
posted by AppleTurnover at 8:34 AM on February 14, 2014

My guess is that he is not using radio bugs, but instead a digital recorder or phone with a recording app running.

That was my thought, too. A phone would be easily secreted under a pile of papers and would provide plausible deniability were it discovered.
posted by Floydd at 8:38 AM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Private investigative firms do this, or you can just go to your local spy shop and buy/rent what is needed to do the job. This is not that difficult, at all.

You don't mention if it is legal to record without consent in your state.
posted by jbenben at 8:41 AM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd second what bottlebrushtree says. Setting up bugs and recording is time intensive, complicated and expensive.

If you tend to hold meetings in the same place, and especially if you tend to hold sensitive meetings in the same place at the same time or your calendars are explorable, it would be easy to place a phone in there and set it to record. Alternatively, there are apps that enable your call to be automatically picked up - you then record at the other end of the line. If caught, rather than holding bugging equipment it's "oops, I left my phone in the meeting room by accident."

Before you sweep, look at the obvious places you would stash a bug or a phone - fixtures, fittings, landline phones and comms equipment, things that shouldn't be or needn't be in the room, under furniture. Consumer-level listening equipment records in the device itself. More sophisticated stuff transmits elsewhere and often has a power source - like a landline phone or electrical point. If Bob is good enough and determined enough to use sophisticated listening equipment then I'd also be getting the IT security specialist in to check data security and whether there was keyloggers and so forth on computers.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:44 AM on February 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

As was suggested earlier, Much more likely he's just using small portable audio recorders. If he's actually installing listening equipment, it's possible his increasing paranoia will drive him to install more. Either way, cameras are the way to go.
posted by ®@ at 8:47 AM on February 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Some video conference equipment is configured to pick up an incoming isdn call automatically. At my old job, you could call into any conference room in the company without anybody knowing, hearing everything. This feature can be turned off pretty easily.
posted by dr_dank at 8:57 AM on February 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

I have a little bit of professional experience in this area, and my recommendation to you would be: Don't bother. The tools and resources you have available to you are amateurish given the tools and resources available to someone who wants to install and use monitoring devices like you're describing. The best result you'll get is an incomplete search, but a false sense of security and completion. You're better off assuming they're there, and adjusting your behavior accordingly.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 9:51 AM on February 14, 2014 [10 favorites]

If he has administrator type access to computers, it's also easy to put software on them that act as recording/transmission devices.

I agree with NotMyselfRightNow that if you're facing a motivated attacker that you have slim chances of proving things safe. That said, if he no longer has physical access to the building (he's been fired, right?), anything that requires him to retrieve recordings is out of his reach and anything that broadcasts electronically needs either batteries (which will eventually run out, rendering them harmless) or to be plugged in. If it's reasonable to check all of the outlets (including ones that might not be obvious - above the drop ceiling, for example), you can see if there's anything there that doesn't make sense and might be suspicious.
posted by Candleman at 10:38 AM on February 14, 2014

Do you live in a two=party consent state? Don't install your own devices, if you do.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:42 AM on February 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

Is it possible to set up a "sting" operation? Similar to how police only reveal certain details of a crime to the public, so if someone mentions other details, they know that they must have inside knowledge of the crime. That is, come up with fake conversations that you will have in each potential location that include content that would entice Bob to reveal his knowledge of the conversation (plan this outside of the office obviously), have the fake convos, and see which, if any, are brought up by Bob. Then, you match that conversation detail with where the convo took place, and you know he was, at one point, listening in on that office.

If you have a laptop with a webcam attached to a company network, it's possible that he's hacked into it, turned off the indicator light, and is using it to record.

Wouldn't eliminating Bob's position be the easier route to take?
posted by melissasaurus at 11:35 AM on February 14, 2014

Given that this is a legal mess, your best bet is to have your legal counsel engage a private security firm to do the search. This keeps everything aboveboard, and security firms are used to working with police, documenting evidence without tampering, etc etc etc. I'd imagine you'd want said security firm to have the investigating police officer along when they do their search, again for evidence chain of custody reasons.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 1:17 PM on February 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

I know you caveated answers and this will probably get deleted, but please be careful, I feel like it's a short ramp from this level of paranoia + effort, to violence in the workplace.
posted by thinkpiece at 3:17 PM on February 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

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