From elaborate, coded messages to the futuristic communications devices used by spies and military agencies, telecommunications technologies have played a role in espionage. In a world where smartphones, smartwatches, and disappearing instant messages are common, the technologies favored by yesteryear’s spies seems quaint by comparison. Here’s a look at some of the early devices used to secretly communicate.
Spy vs Spy – Telecommunications Technology and Espionage
Espionage, by its nature, demands secrecy. After all, listening devices, or bugs, would be useless if they were easily detected and spies do their business at great personal risk.
Short Range Agent Communications (SRAC) devices — SRAC devices were hand-held devices that allowed text messages to be transmitted over short distances using short-range radio frequencies. The limited range meant transmissions were more difficult to intercept, but it also meant that agents needed to be within the range of the hidden base station. The 1960s version, which was known as “Buster,” consisted of two shoe-boxed sized base stations and a pocket-sized handheld unit with a small 1.5-inch keyboard.
The agent had to first cipher the message into a secret code, enter the ciphered data into the Buster device, walk into range of the base unit (about 1,000 feet), and then hit the send button. In the 1970s, Buster was replaced by Discus, which did away with the base stations completely and automatically encrypted text messages, allowing for secure, short-range transmission between two handheld devices within range of each other. While Discus was a huge improvement over Buster, it had its drawbacks. Users had to remain still and wait for confirmation that their messages had been received by checking for a flashing red light. They had to do so while being as unobtrusive as possible.
- The Telefunken PE484 — Consisting of two devices, the Telefunken was a direction finder used to track down clandestine radio stations in the 1950s. The main unit was portable and could fit easily in a coat pocket. A secondary field strength unit was worn on the wrist like a wristwatch.
- The Thing — As a gesture of friendship, the Russians gave US Ambassador Averell Harriman a beautiful hand carved replica of the Great Seal of the United States, which was later hung in the ambassador’s study. This gesture, however, had an ulterior motive as it contained hidden inside of it an electromagnet-powered HF radio bug.
- The Big Ear — The Big Ear was a toy, but it was also a decent parabolic microphone capable of listening to conversations up to 200 feet away. Parabolic microphones are commonly used in the broadcasting industry to capture audio across similar distances. You’ll often see them used during sporting events.
- Insectohopter — The CIA developed the Insectohopter in the 1970s. The laser-guided flying device was built by a watchmaker to carry a miniature listening device. Carrying a 1-gram payload, the Insectohopter had a 200-meter range and could fly for 60 seconds. Despite its ability to fly and listen, it never became operational because it was difficult to control.
Today, everyday people have far more sophisticated telecommunications technologies in their pockets, purses, or strapped to their wrists. Text messaging is an everyday occurrence, and many useful services such as Snap Chat or iMessage to ensure that their messages either disappear altogether or are at least encrypted.
Embedded cameras in doorbells or teddy bears are modern surveillance devices used in the home. Flying drones, complete with tiny wireless video cameras on board are child’s play.