The Debugging Mania
Newsweek, August 18, 1975 - Mark Gerchich with Ann Lallande in New York and Jon Lowell in Detroit
An advertising executive hears a funny clicking on the line whenever he picks up the telephone. A manufacturer is suspicious when a competitor brings out a new product just like the one his own company has been preparing secretly for months. A district attorney is convinced that someone is listening to his confidential conversations with witnesses.
What to do? Call in the friendly neighborhood "debugger." Equipped with a grab bag of futuristic electronic gadgetry, these modern security experts will poke around bookcases, air ducts and baseboards, stick pins in walls, pull out ceiling tiles and examine overstuffed furniture. Then they will report to their client whether or not someone has tapped his telephone or planted other listening devices in his office. They may charge as much as $4,000 for an ultra-sophisticated "sweep" of a large office and its telephone system.
Industrial spying and police wiretapping have long been commonplace. But the debugging industry clearly owes its current boom to recent news of surreptitious government snooping by the CIA and FBI and, of course, to Watergate. Suburban Washington, D.C., electronics expert Allan D. Bell Jr. says that most information leaks turn out to be traceable to mundane sources-wastebaskets full of discarded notes, used typewriter ribbons that can be read, even golf-course gossip. Yet businessmen now seem to forget those elementary possibilities and leap immediately to the conclusion that they are being bugged.
Estimates vary widely about the number of searches that actually turn up bugs. The American Telephone and Telegraph Co., which will check for telephone taps upon request, reports that it discovered only 183 illegal taps in 10,000 investigations last year. A Los Angeles detective, however, claims that he finds some listening device in 20 per cent of his cases. New York security specialist Arthur Katon notes that for every inquiry he receives about his debugging service, he turns down five requests to place illegal bugs.
Charlatans: Not surprisingly, the prospect of quick profits has attracted a flock of charlatans into the debugging industry. They are usually private eyes who will happily indulge a paranoid customer with a dazzling display of pseudoscientific gimmickry. "A good many detective agencies will come in and do a rain dance around your office," says Dan Patrick, who together with Dave Heller operates the seven-month-old Counter Measure Security Systems near Detroit. Patrick estimates that there are only half a dozen really reputable private debugging firms in the U.S.
Still, many corporate executives have become convinced that they cannot get along without debugging experts. The most frequent purchasers of debugging services are companies in highly competitive businesses, such as movies and television. Los Angeles detective Milo Speriglio says that he get several calls every month from producers and distributors of pornographic movies. Speriglio once found a bug in the home of a major television comedy star, shortly after a network had canceled his show.
Oil companies, credit-car companies, automakers and others also feel threatened about the possible theft of trade secrets. Strange stories are part of the business. According to one report, when a mining company recently held a top-level meeting in a private railroad car, a debugging firm was called in to make a sweep. Then, the story goes, each executive was required to strip off most of his clothes-and the meeting was conducted with the moguls wearing only their underwear.
Dan D. Patrick, 28, is the president of Counter Measure Security Systems, a six-employee firm in Ann Arbor, Mich. that he started a little over a year ago. It specializes in finding and removing electronic eavesdropping bugs from industrial and political offices. Patrick says he is "morally opposed" to such devices and believes they should be prohibited on grounds of invasion of privacy. "When you feel your privacy is in danger, it affects your life," says Patrick. He became interested in antibugging work after reading The Electronic Invasion, a book about the proliferation of eavesdropping devices. Developing his skills with part-time jobs for lawyers and private detectives, Patrick decided to go full time after the number of ads for surveillance equipment in magazines convinced him of the immensity of the problems. His firm uses equipment worth more that $50,000 in a "sweep" of an office, and Patrick claims he has never had a dissatisfied customer. He is also steadfast in his refusal to work for clients outside the law-like bookies. Patrick wants to keep his company small so that he can be certain of the trustworthiness of all his employees. Some skilled debuggers occasionally become buggers. "it's a dirty business," says Patrick, "and we would like to see a time when we would not be needed!"