The Spy Who Bugged Me

Insects are not the only bugs you should worry about in your hotel room when traveling overseas.
Alix StuartSeptember 1, 2000

Insects are not the only bugs you should worry about in your hotel room when traveling overseas. A recent General Accounting Office report details more than 75 incidents of audio and video surveillance in hotel and meeting rooms, along with laptop break-ins and high-pressure questions, experienced by U.S. researchers traveling in emerging-market areas for the Department of Energy between 1995 and 1999. The report follows a wake of similar government security breaches on home turf.

While the report did not address private-industry experience, U.S. experts say the threat is real for all business travelers. “Some of the same tricks they’re pulling on Department of Energy contractors, they could very easily be pulling on private- industry people,” says William Fenzel, an assistant director at the GAO who audits security at the DoE.

The surveillance was often detected by some humorous slip-ups, such as the potted plant that was moved around a meeting room to follow the path of a technician with sensitive information. Then there was the traveler who was asked, “What is bingo?” by his foreign host, following what he thought was a private phone conversation with his wife about her recent bingo game.

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Awareness of foreign espionage tactics seems to be growing within Corporate America. Corporate intelligence firm Kroll Associates Inc. reports that physical security services, including “sweeps” of meeting rooms for surveillance devices, are the fastest- growing sectors in the investigative- services industry. The number of security consulting requests he gets has nearly tripled in the past three years, says Gary McDaniel, president and CEO of Pretext Services Inc., an investigative and security firm based in Florida.

Acknowledging the potential for such spying techniques–federal offenses under the Economic Espionage Act of 1996–is half the battle, say the experts. To avoid having your secrets leak out while traveling, they say, don’t discuss valuable information in potentially unsecured areas, and arm your laptop with high- end firewall protection and an embedded tracking device.