Lost luggage, missed connections, and flight delays are some of the common concerns that plague nervous travelers. But if you’re heading to countries like China, Russia, Israel, or even the U.K., you might have another major issue: bugged hotel rooms.
Why Would Someone Bug a Room?
“Security and safety are easily at risk anytime you enter a space where somebody else has had access prior to your arrival,” says Jeffrey Jurist, President of SpyAssociates.com. And there are plenty of reasons why you might be the target. While the hotel itself might not be the one to bug a room, a nefarious employee, hotel worker, investigator, or government agency would have their reasons -- legal, military, insurance, espionage, business, and financial, among others, says Jurist. Jim Angleton, president and CEO of AEGIS FinServ Corp, adds that “an intelligence community might have someone gain access to the room by paying off a front desk person, who tells them -- for money -- which room a target or suspect is staying in. Once in a while, an intelligence agency will contact the hotel manager formally and request assistance, but never expose what they are doing.”
These days, business espionage is most common, and likely to take place in China, according to Angleton. “If you are conducting espionage and are an unregistered agent in a country, you can be tried and sentenced,” he says. “If you are visiting another country for business purposes, you may want to know if your clients’ or others are operating clandestine espionage, including gaining access to your electronics and bugging your room.’”
A Brief History of Hotel-Room Bugging
Bugging hotel rooms is nothing new. In 2008, just before the Summer Olympics in Beijing, the U.S. State Department issued a fact sheet stating the following: “All visitors should be aware that they have no reasonable expectation of privacy in public or private locations. All hotel rooms and offices are considered to be subject to on-site or remote technical monitoring at all times. Hotel rooms, residences, and offices may be accessed at any time without the occupant’s consent or knowledge."
More recently, in 2015, President Obama broke a decades-old tradition, when he announced that he wouldn’t stay at the Waldorf Astoria (which was bought by a Chinese insurance company) during the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Although the administration attributed this change to a variety of factors, like space and cost, a few officials anonymously said that security -- and namely, espionage -- was the key issue. Earlier that year, the White House suspected hackers backed by the Chinese government were responsible for a massive cyberattack that stole highly sensitive, personal information of millions of government employees. As such, concerns around cybersecurity and electronic eavesdropping were raised.
But the United States has been known to spy on other countries, too. The National Security Agency monitored calls of 35 world leaders, according to documents leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013. As Jurist says, “There is no limitation as to where or what country is most likely to bug a room, as every destination has the same concerns.”
How Can You Spot These Bugs?
Bugs, which are typically hidden in areas that only a trained technician can find, cannot be detected with the naked eye. “A bugging device in a hotel is not easy to spot as they are often concealed inside everyday items (smoke detectors, fire alarms, clock radios, landline phones, docking stations, speakers, and even behind power outlets, air-conditioning vents, or ceiling lights),” says Jurist. “It’s typically a tiny little computer board and may have little wires. I’ve seen some the size of a quarter.”
But there are some signs to keep your eyes peeled for. “Check if any plaster (white powder) is laying near wall or vanity areas,” says Jurist. “These areas could be pinholes installed in walls from a neighboring room or ceiling vents. Also look for ordinary objects that may have a stripped screw or an unusual placement, unusual static or sounds coming from the hotel phone, or discolorations on the walls such as new paint or plaster.” Jurist suggests checking around the living room, bathroom, under the desk, and bed.
Bugs Where You Don’t Expect Them
To make matters more confusing, a spy doesn’t have to hide a bug in your room to listen in; speakers serve as mics, so the TV, radio, and landline can all be tapped. Areas where the computer screen is visible are also key, as cameras may capture sensitive information, like passwords, bank account information, personal browsing habits, and more. But that’s not all. “There are even laser-tapping bugs that someone could point at your window from a mile away and listen to the vibrations off the window created by your voice,” says Jurist.
Use Your Eyes or High-Tech Equipment
“If you are in a hotel room for a few days, take notice of what’s inside your room, such as clocks, phones, and books. If these items change or new ones appear, they could have been replaced with one that has a bug cleverly installed.” It’s wise to visually scan the room for any clues that might reveal a covert device. An unusually placed object may warrant a closer inspection. Jurist also recommends paying attention to repair people coming or going, or delivery trucks stationed near the room outside. Of course, this could also be a coincidence, so don’t get paranoid immediately.
So what should you do if you spot a bug in your room? You can go to any spy shop and purchase a cheap voltage meter, which detects for unstable energy use, says Angleton. And if you remove wall plates, you can spot listening devices. But keep in mind that bug detection equipment can range between $250 and $25,000, according to Jurist (The more costly equipment can detect bugs even if they are powered off.)
Bring in the Pros
You can also hire a counter surveillance expert to sweep the premises and help neutralize any possibility of potential or actual current threats, but whether they’d be able to find anything depends on who bugged the place. If the government tapped your room, for example, it’s less likely that something will be discovered. That said, these experts do carry high-end detection equipment that’s government-grade and can uncover elusive bugs, whether they are powered on or off.
Hiring an expert may be a bad idea entirely, though. “The industry is small -- everyone talks. There’s no such thing as contractor privacy,” says Angleton. In some countries, like Russia and China, the government intelligence community often monitors hotels frequented by business travelers. With that in mind, anyone they observe using search techniques to uncover hidden devices might land in hot water.
Other Safety Precautions
Furthermore, avoid having confidential conversations in the room. Don’t rely on mobile apps, and always keep your phone password protected. According to Angleton, the only communication service to use is ProtonMail. “WhatsApp has been compromised by many government intel agencies,” he says. “Don’t try whispering, and walking around the block and talking [doesn’t help], as cars a mile away with a parabolic antenna can pick up your conversation.” Other useful tips: Place a post-it note over your laptop video cameras until you need them, and don’t meet in a hotel’s conference room.
To minimize your risk of becoming a victim of cyber espionage, Angleton recommends avoiding the hotel’s Wi-Fi and hotspots. Just before your trip, buy a phone you can throw away and turn off the caller ID. He also suggests making 25-second calls, since 30 to 45 seconds is all that’s needed for a satellite to pick up information. (In the U.S., a stingray antenna picks up information in 10 seconds.) After a few days, throw the phone in the lavatory and get it wet so it’s intentionally fried, he recommends. “Buy a new one, but not from the same vendor. Never text, obtain email, or download apps. Only use it for calls -- short ones. Never use VPN, as it’s easy compromised, or let anyone know you have that phone or allow them use it. Also, pay with cash or a pre-paid debit card, not a credit card.”
When In Doubt, Switch Rooms
“If you have any concerns that your room has been compromised, find something to complain about -- the air, the smell, the noise -- and change rooms,” says Jurist. “You never want those who may be watching to know that you may suspect them.” Angleton also recommends taking a photo of the bug. “Don’t touch it or get your fingerprints on it. Either leave it alone or call your country embassy. Don’t call local law enforcement or the hotel. Put a chair in front of the device, as you may not know if it’s a camera or open mic,” he says. Overall, use discretion -- avoid calling the media or creating a scene. “Be natural; appearing unnatural is a giveaway and can compromise your security and/or well-being,” he says. “That means, no texts, no writing and burning paper, no flushing it down the toilet, and no eating it.”
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