Spy vs. Spy: A Modern Study Of Microphone Bugs Operation And Detection

Veronica Valeros and Sebastian Garcia

In 2015, artist Ai Weiwei was bugged in his home, presumably by government actors. This situation raised our awareness on the lack of research in our community about operating and detecting spying microphones. Our biggest concern was that most of the knowledge came from fictional movies. Therefore, we performed a deep study on the state-of-the-art of microphone bugs, their characteristics, features and pitfalls. It included real life experiments trying to bug ourselves and trying to detect the hidden mics. Given the lack of open detection tools, we developed a free software SDR-based program, called Salamandra, to detect and locate hidden microphones in a room. After more than 120 experiments we concluded that placing mics correctly and listening is not an easy task, but it has a huge payoff when it works. Also, most mics can be detected easily with the correct tools (with some exceptions on GSM mics). In our experiments the average time to locate the mics in a room was 15 minutes. Locating mics is the novel feature of Salamandra, which is released to the public with this work. We hope that our study raises awareness on the possibility of being bugged by a powerful actor and the countermeasure tools available for our protection.

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