By Akhbar Satar
IF you are the new chairman, new chief executive officer, the new Mentri Besar or a minister moving or relocating to a new office and home, it is advisable to conduct bug sweeps or technical surveillance counter measure (TSCM) inspections to uncover the possible surveillance devices planted by your enemies, agents or those who had prior access to the premises. This is one of the ways to protect information on your assets, maintain privacy as well as to identify security weaknesses including confidentiality of meetings and conferences.
In Malaysia, the public’s fear of being spied upon became real after the expose of a former minister’s sexual escapades at a hotel room a few years ago. It is believed the sale of hidden spy devices and detectors had risen when video clips of the exploits went viral.
Another case where many hidden spy cameras were detected installed was at the former Selangor Mentri Besar’s office. The recently release of audio recordings by a law enforcement agency which was a topic of debate on social media which caused a general concern. There were several sexual video clips currently investigated by the local police. These types of investigation is common in many countries but in Malaysia, these sexual videos are a political weapon according to former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
TSCM inspections, bug sweeping or debugging is a procedure for locating covert surveillance devices such as audio, video transmitters in offices, residential homes or vehicles. It is conducted by professional, qualified, well-trained specialists and technicians using the latest detection tools and instruments in the market. This provides confidence to people that their privacy is protected.
Today, many people have purchased hidden spy detectors at Jalan Pasar, Kuala Lumpur or online at a price between RM65 and RM150 a unit. Many of these detectors are unreliable and unable to detect the low radio frequency devices and wired cameras with internal memory.
It is believed that local private investigators often charge up to RM10,000 or more to spy on high-profile personalities.
The hidden spy gadgets, today have advanced technology , are more sophisticated, complex and have become smaller in size, with longer battery life and access to wireless networks so that more spying will take place. They are designed to collect information such as audio, video and data. These surveillance devices are easily available in the market and anyone can purchase and use these devices to invade our privacy.
The Forbes reported, “Are you afraid that hidden cameras might be spying on you when you travel? In 2020, the concern over spycams in hotels and vacation rentals can no longer be dismissed as far-fetched”. Typically, these covert camera devices were cleverly embedded in innocuous-looking items such as smoke detectors, alarm clocks, phone chargers and even shampoo bottles, and deodorant sticks. They were discovered in a Sydney hostel, a Miami Airbnb, and hotels from Tehri, India to Cape Cod, Massachusetts and from Zhengzhou, China to San Francisco and Minneapolis. CNN said that in South Korea, a crime ring was busted after secretly filming and live-streaming the actions of over 1,600 motel guests.
A good quality spy-camera can fit into an area that provides power (hard wired) to the camera. In hotel rooms, the area near a high-definition television or digital TV boxes is a popular spot to set up the device; the TV in most rooms faces the bed. Other areas that can camouflage cameras or listening devices are the mirrors, hair dryer holders, curtains, paintings and smoke detectors. Cameras can also be hidden in the wall near electric plug sockets and tissue boxes. Most ordinary spy detectors are only good for uncovering cheap wireless cameras and not for the hard-wired ones.
To personally detect hidden cameras in hotels, a good Wireless Camera Signals Sweeper is required that must be able to sweep up to 6GHz. It must be able to conduct a physical search for the hidden camera lens. For the untrained eyes, the hidden lens may not be easy to detect where it is hidden and for some latest spycams, they are concealed under tinted surfaces which make detection almost unnoticeable. The best advice is not to check-in into the same hotel room.
Hard-wired cameras can only be detected by TSCM’s professionals. It’s best to get professionals to sweep the room or building. There are a few reliable companies that specialise in TSCM in Malaysia. Most modern surveillance technology devices are highly discreet and are difficult to locate without TSCM’s expertise.
Third-generation phones (digital and data), or 3G, are said to be harder to monitor because they use digital encoded and compressed transmission. However, it is still possible to intercept communications and decrypt the audio with the help of the right technical equipment used by TSCM specialists or telecommunication companies.
If you have watched Netflix’s Narcos, the drama series of real-life drug kingpins a few decades ago, you would probably have seen how one of the wealthiest namely, Pablo Escobar, had used a satellite phone to communicate with his family while on the run to avoid detection by law enforcement agencies. The authorities had wire tapped Escobar’s phone to triangulate his location and they were successful. The Medellin cartel chief was gunned down on a rooftop in his hometown of Medellin, Colombia in December 1992.
Covert spying technology devices have been used and improved over the years. The United States President Donald Trump, for instance, had accused Barack Obama of allegedly wire tapping his phones (as a political manoeuvre) at his Trump Tower office during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Wire or telephone tapping is also often used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, and the Internal Revenue Service. It is, however, strictly controlled to safeguard a person’s privacy.
It is important to consider a regular TSCM sweep to verify if there are any surreptitious devices being planted in locations where sensitive and confidential information is discussed and communicated. Proactive inspections provide deterrence and confidence that the privacy is protected.
Hiring a TSCM company requires a thorough due diligence and background checks to reduce risk, ensure their reliability and the integrity of the consultants. They could be double agents and their integrity questionable. Confidentiality must be guaranteed.
A close friend, who was a former Special Branch officer, told me once that “everything around us is unsafe”. Trust only your mother. A pertinent reminder to all of us who own smartphones. Even land lines are at risk.
This letter first appeared in The Malay Mail. The views here do not necessarily represent those of this portal.