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Snooping on rivals is now big business 21/11/2001

The secret world of bugging and counter surveillance is, by its very nature, generally kept under wraps. But now, in the wake of DP bugging controversy, a top-debugging expert has lifted the veil of secrecy on the fascinating world of electronic espionage. Barbara Cole reports

Bugging – and debugging is big business and anyone who has competitors or makes a profit is at risk.

And while the secret of the bedroom are just as vulnerable to undercover snoops as those of the boardroom, it is businesses in commercial and industrial premises that are victims of the boom; whose trade secrets and sensitive negotiations are being covertly relayed to eavesdropping enemies.

"There are people who specialise in industrial espionage who make a living out of bugging," said Raymond van Staden of Durban, a top counter-surveillance expert who has just returned from overseas with the latest state-of-art debugging technology.

With bugging devises getting more and more sophisticated and devious – digital, microwave and with colour visuals as well as sound – the counter measures have to be just as clever and advanced.

"Otherwise, you will just get left behind," he said.


Van Staden's clients are blue-chip companies – including commercial and banking institution – many of which he "sweeps" for listening devices once a week. He is also called in before major meetings and important, sensitive negotiations.

He said there has been a big increase in bugging in the last five years, and a boom this year.

Criminals would be just as interested in gaining behind –the –scenes information from his banking clients as competitions, he said.

The boom began after the 1994 elections, when many former police, intelligence and military people started offering bugging, surveillance services and equipment. The collapse of the Berlin Wall also opened the industry to East Europeans.

Van Staden said the high-risk groups he talked to were shocked at how widespread and sophisticated the undercover world of electronic bugging has become. He has to show them his demonstration bugs, some the size of a pinhead, during his presentations for them to realise the potential dangers of the undercover listening devices.

Bugsters, acting on behalf of their clients, get into business premises using a number of guises. Perhaps it is as a telephone technician, maintenance staff or visitor...

Their bugs, which can transmit up to two kilometres away, are placed in a myriad of places.

Surprisingly, the "James Bond" tricks of placing a bug in a table lamp is still used, as well as other traditional places: Telephone, intercoms, modems, wall sockets and not-so-obvious locations like roofs.

They are not all placed in offices either.


Van Staden told of a generous South African businessman who gave his staff and competitors telephone for Christmas. Unbeknown to them, they all contained an extra surprise: Hidden bugs.

Listening devices can also be built into cell phones and activated from any location.

A cell phone might be turned off in a boardroom – with the screen going blank – but all it takes is a single (silent) call from outside to activate the bug to have someone listen in.

A new piece of equipment – a sensor pen - -can check in advance if a cell phone has a hidden bug.

Van Staden said it was even possible for some of the "Fly-by-night" debugging agents to offer to do a sweep for a company, saying they had information about bugs in a building.

They might then plant a bug themselves and then sell whatever information they glean to a rival.

He and the other experts in the industry are calling for legislation, making it compulsory for all debugging agents to be registered or licensed. Many charged fat fees for doing nothing, he said.

"We need regulations to protect us and our clients," he said.

Van Staden and his team of "sweepers" check every nook and cranny when called in to debug a room.

They use probes that look like metal detectors, other that magnify the smallest of places, use ultra violent detectors and even mirrors.

They also seal areas to check if they have been tampered with since their last sweep.


Van Staden's latest state-of-art gadget is a British-made Scanlock, used by many government agencies around the world. It is said to be the "ultimate piece of counter-surveillance gear."

One of the first to be used in the private sector in the country, it picks up signals in a fraction of a second, and can identify their frequency.

The information is downloaded into a databank and then printed in 3D on a laptop.

"The equipment is an aid. We still have to do physical checks ourselves."

Bugging can be done legally if a court order is obtained and there is a threat to the state, or there is a suspicion of illegal activity taking place. The penalties for illegal bugging are a fine or imprisonment for up to two years.


But how do you know you are being bugged? Van Staden gives the main warning signs.

Other people know your confidential business or professional trade secrets; secret meetings and bids seem to be less than secret; people seen to know your activities when they shouldn't; you notice strange sounds or volume changes on your phone lines.

You notice static, popping or scratching on your phone lines; you can hear sounds coming from your phone when the handset is hung up; your phone often rings and nobody is there.

These are just some of the give-aways.

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