Wiretapping is a practice associated with criminal acts, but there is actually more to it than that. Legal procedures can sometimes need wiretapping, for the common good. However, with wiretapping’s evolution from criminal to legal, to being the best (and worst) of both, it is not a surprise why people misunderstand it.
Before you look into spy gadgets you can actually buy, first consider if you are being wiretapped. This article explores the definition, history, signs, and reasons for wiretapping. It also provides you safety measures you can take against the act.
What Is Wiretapping?
Wiretapping is a way to get information about people without them knowing. This is done through, as the name suggests, wires.
In a nutshell, this involves exposing gadgets’ wires and connecting a third-party wire to it. Through this, people can eavesdrop on personal businesses like calls, emails, and text messages. This is also a way for people to steal private information and data, which they can use for personal gain.
Note that these days, wiretaps are much more difficult to control and understand, as it evolves with technology. People have to specialize in wiretapping more and more. This is especially the case for soft wiretaps, which you will discover later in this article.
Wiretapping stemmed from the invention of telephones and telegraphs. People used to play with telegraphs to gain access to private conversations. It was easy back then because there were no real security measures in place.
By the time of the modern telephone, wiretapping became much more popular. Wiretapping began to include people recording private conversations without either speaker knowing. This is also the beginning of the process of “bugging,” which will be addressed later in the article.
Its legitimacy in law became much more prominent during President Nixon’s time since he approved of an illegal wiretapping incident known as Watergate. He had used it to spy on the Democratic National Committee.
By this century, wiretapping has become a much more serious issue. Its scope has come to include communications firms like Facebook and video-chatting apps. This is a whole new playing field in the game of wiretapping, and this is why governments all over the world are wary.
How Does Wiretapping Work?
When two people on the phone are having a conversation, sounds translate into electrical currents, which make messages travel from one place to another.
Specifically, this happens as currents pick up on the sounds a person is making. When the currents receive the sound variety, speaker diaphragms create a back and forth motion. From there, your devices can recreate the sound on the other end.
For sound, the traveling is fast, but that does not mean that its path is short. This is where wiretapping comes in. Using the telephone as an example, electrical currents travel through wires that connect all over your city. It is not a one-stop destination from your end to another person’s. These wires are already entangled together to create the telephone system, so what is one more?
Wiretapping is when another wire, a third-party wire, connects to your telephone line. Think of the telephone system as an extension cord, and you have all your appliances (telephone wires) plugged in. The added wires also pick up on sound, but most do not send it back, so you never know when your devices are wiretapped.
There are different types of wiretapping these days. This is only the practice in its most basic form.
Who Does Wiretapping?
People wiretap for different reasons, some of which will be detailed later in the article. To get started, like in any other field, there are amateur and professional wiretappers.
There are those who get a kick out of spying on people they do not know, and some who want to eavesdrop on people they do know. These people usually do amateur wiretapping. It will be easy to detect an amateur wiretap because this is commonly done through physical means. However, there are insiders that wiretap organizations. In that case, they have the upper hand because they are in it.
Professional wiretappers are those in law-enforcement or legal organizations. They are quick to identify criminal activity and can do this without being detected themselves. These people will have access to big-budget organizations because laws allow them to. Professionals have the most opportunities to wiretap and the most reasons to do so.
There are those in the middle of all these and these are actual spies. Businesses tend to sabotage each other, and wiretapping is one of the best ways to do so.
What Can Be Wiretapped?
As of this century, wiretapping restrictions in the US include emails and electronic pages. This is a good move considering almost all wiretapping nowadays involves instant messages.
Instant messaging can now be done anytime and anywhere. The clincher? All of it is free. Of course, you can use encrypted messaging apps, as we have detailed the best encrypted messaging apps before. Still, not everyone can control the instant messaging apps they use.
Through instant messages, criminals can intercept your voice notes, messages, videos, and calls. It is best to know that this goes both ways: investigators also find criminals quicker because of wiretapping. The legal and illegal reasons for wiretapping will be found later in this article.
Private companies have a tight fist around your data the moment you sign up. Social media companies like Facebook have all the keys to your data, so you are basically putting all your eggs in one basket. This makes wiretappers more excited, especially if you have big secrets to keep. It also does not help that intercepting online messages is easier than accessing your SMS text messages.
The main difference between intercepting instant messages and SMS text messages is the GSM interceptors. This stands for Global System for Mobile Communications interceptors. Devices like these force your cellphone’s signals to connect to their own systems, and not to your repeaters.
And what are repeaters? In a nutshell, repeaters receive your phone’s signals and retransmit it, making it easier for your messages to cover long distances. These make it possible for the person you are talking to to receive your message. By using interceptors, wiretappers can take a peek into every single phone in their GMS’s range. It will save and analyze all the data it can get, regardless of your service provider.
The very first form of wiretapping is through the telephone, so it is no surprise that this is still a prominent wiretapped material today.
Wiretapping a telephone is the easiest wiretapping method to date. By cutting off the plugs of a phone, a wiretapper will have your telephone’s wires exposed. Through this, your private affairs can be made public. It will only take attaching outside wires to your telephone’s personal yet exposed wires to do so.
This method is best for listening only, since wiretapping the microphone will reveal that a wiretap is taking place.
What Are the Types of Wiretapping?
One of the most common forms of wiretapping is the transmit wiretap. This method “bugs” devices through a radio transmitter with a microphone connected to wires.
Put more simply, a bug is an inconspicuous device that receives audio information and shares these through radio waves. This works only if you have a radio receiver paired to your bug because this will pick up its radio signals.
From there, a wiretapper will encode and analyze the data they receive. This type of wiretapping is common in movies. You will often see heroes (or villains) have stake-outs, staying inside a van while waiting for their bugs to pick up information.
The next form of wiretapping is the recording wiretap. This is one of the easiest to understand, doing exactly what its name suggests: records.
Recording Wiretaps are simply tape recorders wired to phone lines. As discussed above, exposed phone wires are where wiretappers connect their transmitters. This process is key to successful wiretapping, but it is also the easiest way to tap into a device.
This type of wiretap is similar to the process of exposing telephone wires, only you do not connect wires to them. You attach a recorder. Since this is the easiest to do, it is also one of the easiest ways to get caught. Recorders are not easy to conceal, and people will be quick to realize if their phone lines are exposed. However, recorders are also going digital. This may make it more difficult for wiretappers to get caught red-handed.
Hardwire wiretaps use the “exposed wire” method. This is the earliest form of wiretapping. It requires people to have physical access to telephone wires and communication lines in order to work. Since these lines make it possible for voices to travel, exposing them and connecting them to your own line reveals the messages sent.
In this wiretapping method, people connect a second set of wires to an original line of communication. From there, using a device, the signals are retransmitted through the second set of wires. It seems easy enough, but attaching the second set of wires requires another item: an isolation device.
The isolation device makes the rerouting of signals possible; it is the bridge between the two wires.
People often call this type of wiretapping the easiest to do, and in many ways, it is. However, most wiretappers avoid this method because it is inherently time-consuming. By using hardwired wiretaps, you will have to stay on the line waiting for people to pick up their phones. Unless you know what time someone will be making a call, hardwired wiretaps are the least efficient.
The most difficult to do but the most popular method today is the soft wiretap. In this method, there is no need for individuals to do the groundwork on wiretapping. It requires no exposed lines, secondary wires, or bugs.
Soft wiretapping is concerned with modifying a phone’s software system. Because of this, soft wiretapping is malleable. This method overrides individuals’ phones, but it also can override entire telephone systems. An example of this is the private branch exchange or PBX, which is an internal telephone line used by companies.
Even though this is the most popular method today, there are a few obstacles in its way. First, you cannot override systems you do not have complete access to.
In countries like the US and Canada, companies are legally bound to give any calls, emails, and information to government agencies if they have to. Thus, successful soft wiretaps are mostly through means like these.
Second, it would be ignorant to assume that massive companies do not have layers of security at the ready for their PBX.
Third, you will need serious software expertise to do a soft wiretap. This is not a job for just anybody—if you want the job done efficiently, then you have to get someone with the tech experience.
What Is Wiretapping Used For?
Legal Reasons (in the United States of America)
People often equate wiretapping with criminals, but it is actually used for legal reasons more times than you would expect. Wiretapping is a nuanced process, and these two reasons will show you that.
To start, you are legally allowed to wiretap someone if you have a criminal warrant against them. If you can convince investigators to look into a suspicious person’s activities, then they can get a warrant for wiretapping. By doing this, they have access to this person’s calls and conversations.
Another example is if you have a foreign intelligence warrant against someone. This is much more complicated than tracking a suspicious “criminal.”
To use a foreign intelligence warrant, you must be interested in getting information about foreign activities. These include foreign governments. Obtaining this warrant is a tedious process since you should have permission from an international court.
Even though government agencies and intelligence organizations do wiretap on occasion, it does minimize the effects of criminal (illegal) wiretapping. You may ask yourself why people would ever even consider doing this to another person, and there are a few reasons. Whether these reasons are legitimate or not, you decide on.
Some people wiretap conversations of people in their personal lives as an act of distrust: they become their own personal spies. They may want to find out if a person in their lives is lying to them or has got secrets they do not confide. This reason is purely personal, and you cannot get a warrant for distrust alone.
Another reason why regular people wiretap is to gain access to individuals’ information. By doing this, they have the higher ground on identity theft. It will be easy to hack into emails, messages, social media accounts. This can lead to the hacking of credit cards and even more personal details.
The last popular reason why people wiretap is for the fun of it. Some people get a kick out of prying over other people’s messages, and this should not be condoned. Wiretapping is not a hobby; it is an active window into another person’s life, and the secrecy of it all makes it all the more enticing to rebellious people.
9 Signs Your Phone Is Wiretapped
Unknown Sounds on Phone Calls
To know if your phone is being wiretapped, look out for unusual sounds when you are on call. These include static sounds, echoes, and other background noises. Do not put your guard down when you hear scratching and clicking, too. You may think that it is just a glitch in the system, but there is a chance you are being wiretapped.
No, you are not paranoid for hearing “voices.” If there are voices intercepting your phone calls, be extra cautious or report it right away.
Phone Turning On and Off
A wiretapped phone will often function on its own without your help. There is a chance your phone is wiretapped if it lights up all on its own without notifications, calls, or other third-party concerns.
People with wiretapped phones also often report phones restarting by themselves. This goes for any type of phone, too, whether you are an Android or iPhone user.
Battery Easily Draining
When your phone is on Bluetooth, you may notice that its battery drains easily. Imagine this on a larger scale, with a phone connected to faraway third-party devices. It will be no surprise if this takes a toll on your battery quality and life.
When gadgets are bugged or used for wiretapping, their batteries are used in increased levels like never before. So, if you are beginning to notice a severe change in your phone’s battery life, you may consider the chance that it is wiretapped. Of course, do only consider this if there are no other causes at play, there are many other reasons why your phone runs out of battery quickly.
Phone Always Warm
Riding from the idea above, if your phone is often warm, then it means that its battery is wearing out. It can be transmitting data you do not know of to people you also do not know.
However, there are many reasons why a phone’s battery can start tiring itself out. Be cautious but not too cautious, and remember to examine the reasons why your phone’s battery can be broken.
Data Usage Rise on Your Mobile Bill
When it comes to wiretapping, unexplained increases in your phone’s activity is the best way to catch it happening. The same goes for your mobile bills: if there is an unexplainable increase in your bill under data usage, then there is a chance your phone is being used as someone else’s.
It takes a lot of battery and signal to transmit data to unknown sources, so be careful about how you use your phone.
Receiving Unwanted Text Messages
You also have to be careful with whom you disclose your phone details to. If you often receive sketchy, hard-to-read messages from unknown numbers then there might be software bugging your phone.
As discussed above, there are different ways to wiretap phones. Wiretapping evolves constantly, and it is no surprise that it has found its way into the mailing list and phone app industries.
While free internet may be tempting, still think twice before you log any personal details in exchange for anything. Remember, if something is free, the product may be you.
Some people double-check their phones for wiretapping by doing a short test: they reveal a fake controversial “secret” and wait if it leaks. This makes it easy for people to track what phones, apps, or people they may be condoning to wiretap.
Make sure that you are revealing fake secrets, though, if your phone is wiretapped, you may be adding fuel to the fire.
Long Shutdown Process
This one is easy: if your phone is wiretapped, then it will take longer to shut down because someone else is using it. Your phone is not just yours now, it is under the control of another person.
Wiretapped phones, people notice, will take longer than usual getting off calls, texts, or using apps. Your phone does not have a life of its own, there is a chance that this is because of a third party.
Third-Party Apps Requesting For Personal Details
Be wary of the apps you download and allow phone access to. This one may go under your nose because people are so used to saying yes to the apps they download. But hear this now: third-party apps do not have to do much to wiretap your phone, all it needs its access.
You should be suspicious of an app that requests access to features it will not need, like a puzzle game asking for access to your microphone or camera. More caution should be added to apps that ask for your contact list and call history.
If any of these signs sound familiar to you, or if you are experiencing them, consider contacting a professional. Some people opt to get “Anti-Spy Detectors” that tracks radio frequencies and finds spy gadgets. You can find those at Amazon.
Ways to Keep Phone Safe From Wiretapping: For Individuals
In this section, we will be exploring ways to keep your phone away from possible wiretappers. As this happens to both individuals and companies, we find it important to discuss how both can avoid wiretapping.
Prevention is always better than cure, so by doing this, you are adding layers of protection to your data.
Do Not Use Just Any Public Wi-Fi
Public Wi-Fi is notorious for mining individuals’ data without them knowing. All they need is your “email” or “phone number” to log in to your social media accounts.
Doubling down on one of our points above, be wary of anything that asks for information you do not think they need. Public Wi-Fi is very convenient for both parties. On one hand, you get free Wi-Fi whenever, wherever. On the other, they have your data for good. Who knows what these people can do with it?
Do Not Leave Your Phone Unattended
The easiest way to wiretap someone is still to physically bug their gadgets. Do not leave your phones out in the open in any suspicious places. It takes a while to notice if your phone is wiretapped or not, and it takes the opposite amount of time to do the wiretapping.
Do Disable Your Bluetooth
These days, people often have their Bluetooth on regardless if they are using it. While this is a quick way to listen to music whenever you feel like it, this also poses dangers to your private matters.
Having your Bluetooth on at all times makes it so much easier for criminals to intercept your calls and messages. Think of it as leaving your front door open.
Do Take The Time to Study Your Phone
For most people, cell phones are an extension of their bodies. It is an extra limb, as people may say. Because of this, most no longer take the time to look at all the things their phones have installed.
Since the phone is an extension of your body, do routine check-ups every month. Know what you have on your phone and know what apps have access to what data. There are a lot of unnecessary third-party files on your phones, and this can make it move slower at best.
At worst, this can enable wiretapping.
Do Double-Check Your Phone’s Settings
One quick and easy way to keep the wiretappers at bay is to make sure your phone is as protected as it can get. By double-checking your phone’s security settings, you can enable layers of protection you were not using.
This can take the form of a longer password or blocking apps you didn’t know you were granting private data to.
Do Install Antivirus Software
Antivirus software has been around for a long time. When malware and viruses were filling up the internet, people invented antivirus software to protect people’s gadgets.
If you are not the type to do routine check-ups on your phones, you can have these software programs do it for you. These are fast and convenient ways to understand the problems going on with your gadgets. It targets problems right away, and if you are interested in getting one, there are 10 malware removal tools to keep the viruses away.
Ways to Keep Phone Safe From Wiretapping: For Businesses
Do Have Data Security Policies
Make sure that all employees know of their limitations in talking about their data. There are some that unknowingly reveal too much about their contracts, and by that virtue, their companies. Confidential information must be highlighted with each new recruit.
However, you must also have policies in place for people who may want to double-cross your company. Wiretapping can be done by people from inside the company, so be careful with how you communicate your policies to your employees.
Do Have a Strong PBX
As discussed above, PBX stands for private bench exchange. To protect your company from wiretapping, be ready to spend a good dime on your security measures. Your private branch exchanges are only as strong as your IT departments, and cyberattacks are getting more popular by the day.
Whatever the size of your business is, be careful with the information you have at the ready. Have a strong IT infrastructure to support the concealment of this information.
Do Use Security Protection
Like the guideline for individuals, having the proper security systems in place makes it easy for you to protect your information. Hackers have a hard time getting into systems that have layers of protection, so do invest in a good security system.
There are free antivirus software online that provide a good start, especially if your company itself is also starting.
Do Be Open to Investigation
There is nothing wrong with wanting to investigate people that seem suspicious to you. To some, the solution to wiretapping is even more wiretapping, but do remember that you must have the correct permits to do this.
Cyberattacks can happen to anyone and can be done by everyone. The people you trust may be the ones wiretapping your data, so be wary.
Wiretapping: A Cautionary Tale for Both Sides
Wiretapping is a dangerous practice best saved for professionals. Still, people cannot stop amateurs from doing it illegally. This is why it is important to know the signs of wiretapping, as well as safety measures you can take against it.
There is no saying where this practice may lead in the future, but it is a reminder of how technology is only as good as the humans who use it.