Secret recording grows easier as the “Wire” gets smaller

“In the old days, they would say, ‘Let me pat you down for a wire’ and boom, everybody would just open their shirt and say, ‘I’m not wearing a wire,’ ” a retired undercover Federal Bureau of Investigation agent, Joaquin Garcia, said in a telephone interview on Friday. “Now there is no need to wear a wire. It’s become extinct. It’s all gone digital. But what are you going to say, ‘I’m wearing digital,’ instead of ‘I’m wearing a wire’? It’s just become part of the parlance of law enforcement.”

Technological advances aside, the methods have remained the same, with federal agents and undercover officers using covert recording equipment to ensnare would-be criminals, sometimes with the help of a well-placed informer or cooperating witness.

“Technology has made it so easy to plant a device that is much less detectable,” Richard B. Zabel, deputy United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in an interview last week. “Yes, people are conscious of being recorded, but as you’ve seen, in some cases they are not able to find the recorder anyway.”

Nowadays, recording equipment is miniaturized. “Your options have increased a lot because the devices are a lot smaller,” Mr. Zabel said. “They can really hide them now in buttons, in pens, at the point of a pen, in a cuff link or the edge of a tie clip.”

And frisking an undercover agent for a wire, as Mr. Tabone allegedly did, can be as fruitless as finding a pay phone and “dropping a dime” to call the police.

That is sort of an antiquated way to look for a device,” Mr. Zabel said…

During the cold war era, the surveillance device of choice among law enforcement was the Nagra, a Swiss-made portable tape recorder. The first model was about the size of a shoe box and weighed more than 10 pounds. The recorder was battery-powered and used reel-to-reel tape, an important feature because it moved slowly and could record hours of conversation. The recorder could be secreted inside an elastic band or pouch that sat low on a person’s waist, just above the groin. Microphone heads, attached to a right and left wire, were typically threaded up a person’s chest or back and secured near the collarbone with industrial-strength tape.

“When you pulled them off, all the hair came off our chest,” said Robert K. Wittman, a retired senior F.B.I. investigator and founder of the agency’s National Art Crime Team. “There used to be a lot of recordings that ended with ‘Aaahhhhh,’ when you ripped the wires off. It was almost like getting a body wax…”

Today, eavesdropping equipment is sophisticated enough to record high-definition video and sound, and stream it live to a remote computer. Devices no bigger than a pen cap can be slipped into a coat pocket and easily record through the person’s clothing, said Bob Leonard, a retired police officer and founder of the Spy Store, which sells a quarter-sized item called the “Super Mini Covert Wireless Camera” and recording devices disguised as a calculator, cigarette carton or cordless phone.

“Short of having the person stripped down naked, it’s almost impossible to detect,” Mr. Pollini said.

And not even then.

Though it’s been years since a strip search was needed to detect someone using a device that communicates to a computer or recorder nearby. All you need is equipment that will detect if someone is broadcasting.

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