Wiretapping and Spies and Writing Thrillers

by | Mar 8, 2017 | Uncategorized | 10 comments

By Jamie Freveletti

1930’s Telephone Operator

Wiretapping is in the news this week and I have been following with interest the articles regarding the need for warrants –or the lack of them. Of course, as a former attorney I am always interested in the procedure and protocol for anything that our government does. But also, as a writer of spy fiction, I think that I, and probably some of the other Rogue Women Writers on this blog, could probably tell you that there are numerous ways to access a smartphone and a whole host of them are utilized without a warrant. How do we know this, you ask? Research! Those of us that write spy novels spend quite a bit of time researching the issues that are important for the type of novel that we’re writing. We have to, because our readers love to learn about the life of a spy, and the only way to add such detail is to research it. In fact, as I write this Wikileaks announced that it will release 9,000 pages of CIA documents purporting to give up their wiretapping secrets. I’ll be reading those pages and will write a follow up to this post when I’m done.

1965 Martini Olive Bug

Back in the day, a person wishing to wiretap someone had a lot of ways to get it done. As early as the 1930’s a device called the “Detectifone” could be hidden in a room and record a conversation much like a dictaphone would. The 1950’s and 1960’s saw the emergence of small, ingenious devices: watches, (think Dick Tracy), pens and cigarette boxes, and, yes, even a martini glass. In 1965 private detective Hal Lipset created the martini olive bug.

Now the devices are far more advanced and we, as citizens, have unwittingly assisted in the effort by carrying the equivalent of a GPS locator device in our pockets. Yes, I mean that smartphone. And it’s not just the government that spies on us, it’s our apps as well. Like Uber? Have the app on your phone? That company is currently being questioned with regard to its use of alleged software called “greyball” where the app records your location and collects data. It then uses the data to determine whether you are a threat to Uber. Let’s say you spend too much time in City Hall or government buildings (just about every litigator does), the greyball software then decides that you potentially work for taxi or government regulators and might be trying to hail an Uber to see if the company is operating in violation of local laws. If you activate the app it pretends that it’s calling a car, but doesn’t. The “driver” cancels over and over again. It’s an open question whether this data collection is illegal, because you may have agreed to it on the terms of service page for the app.You can read more about greyball and Uber’s denial of any illegal use here.

And finally there’s the hated Stingray device. There’s a current lawsuit here in Chicago over this one. The stingray pretends that it’s a cellphone tower and dupes your smartphone into connecting with it. It collects your texts, information, and some say can even pretend to be you and send a text from your phone to another in your contact list. Police departments across the country own them and deploy them. They can collect information off  a whopping 65,000 people when pointed at a crowd. A stingray was allegedly deployed during a Black Lives Matter protest here in Chicago. But while most of us would never know if a stingray grabbed our phone, in this case the stingray got stung, because it hit the one person at the protest who could figure it out. The device zeroed out the phone of a lawyer who, as part of his pro bono work (we all have to do a certain number of free cases each year to keep our licenses) attended protests on behalf of legal aid in order to act as an observer. He knew immediately what had happened and the suit, which claims among other things that the search was a violation of the Constitution’s Fourth amendment against unreasonable searches and seizures, is currently winding its way through the court system.

A thriller writer not only has to research the ways one can be tapped, but also needs to know how a spy or other person can avoid the tap. In the case of the stingray? Wrap your phone in aluminum foil before you head out.

James Bond would approve.

Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. John Sheldon

    I've heard rumors that there's something that can detect and interpret the magnetic strip on your credit cards? Are those rumors true?

  2. Jamie Freveletti

    Hi John! They are true, but you need to have a card equipped with an RFID chip that gives out a signal.Not all do-but your passport might. Look for paypass, blink, or a picture of a wave signal on the cards. A few months ago I did some research on those new RFID blocking wallets. Some didn't work any better than simple aluminum foil (but they certainly looked more professional). You could also wrap each card in foil before putting it in your wallet.

  3. Karna Bodman

    Jamie – what a terrific and timely post….just reading all of the news coverage about the (somehow purloined) CIA pages. Do we have a mole inside? Or was an outside group able to hack into our CIA to get that information? Who knows? In any event, your post is a great wake-up call to everyone (good idea about the aluminum foil). Also, your mention of detective Hal Lipset reminded me that when I was working as a TV reporter in San Francisco some years back, the station hired Hal to track down a stalker I had (another idea for a thriller). Thanks so much for this great article!

  4. S. Lee Manning

    Great information, Jamie. For spies, for writers, and for anyone who values privacy.

  5. S. Lee Manning

    Great post. Helpful for spies and writers. Also for everyone else.

  6. Gayle Lynds

    What a terrific post, Jamie. I'm thrilled to see your research, because I didn't have a lot of it! You are good!!!! Now I need to go bury myself in finding more intel…. 🙂

  7. Jamie Freveletti

    Thanks all! And Karna–great story about Hal!

  8. Karna Bodman

    I meant to add another comment for Jamie here — I'm now reading your terrific thriller, THE GENEVA STRATEGY. Talk about "OOA" ("Open on Action") — the initial scene involving a small drone was riveting and you have great "hooks" at the end of every chapter. I strongly recommend this story to everyone who enjoys a good thriller!

  9. Sonja Stone

    Jamie, thanks for the info. I knew about the RFID readers, but the Stingray was news to me! 65K people–incredible.

  10. Jamie Freveletti

    Thanks all for the kind words and thanks Karna-hope you like The Geneva Strategy!