5. Listening devices come cheap and easy

For as little as a few hundred rupees, a bugging device can be bought off the shelf to listen into other people's conversations. Add a few hundred more rupees, and you can buy sophisticated miniature video cameras that can be hidden in a flower vase or behind a few books.

For all of these, there is a flourishing market in India, thanks to the perverse violation of privacy and officially sanctioned snooping activities that are undertaken by government agencies. And the completely illegal snooping activities by many private sector companies as part of corporate espionage, or for other reasons.

A trader in Delhi, who specializes in supplying snooping equipment, said he could sell a listening device for as little as Rs 500. "From Rs 500 to Rs 50,000 we have equipment," the trader, known for supplying hidden cameras to TV channels, said.

A listening device would include a transmitter that is planted at a particular place and a recorder to which the voice is sent as radio waves. Similarly, there can be a hidden camera and its recorder.

For long, the Indian market for such devices was dominated by western companies, especially a UK firm. But in recent years, firms from Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and Israel have entered the market. "The former Soviet Union countries brought down the cost of these equipment significantly," an official who has been involved in procuring equipment for intelligence agencies said.

He said snooping equipment were primarily bought for either audio or video recording. In both cases, a host of factors decide how effective the equipment is, how small the transmitter is, the life of its battery and the power of the transmitter to transmit to the maximum distance.

The official said he was aware of equipment that with batteries that could last from a couple of hours to an entire day. There are exceptional equipment where the battery life can last for several days, he added. "But they are extremely rare and expensive," he said.

The microphones (transmitters) can transmit voice to a minimum of 40-50 metres to a couple of km. They transmit it to a pre-determined receiver. "A listening device is nothing but a microphone that converts voice into radio waves and transmits it to a recorder kept at some distance," said Maj Gen V K Singh, a retired officer who was with the Army Signals and RAW. Technology was constantly evolving in snooping, he pointed out. "But the basic premise remains the same, you want to clandestinely listen or video record someone," he said.

Another former officer said snooping could be done in far better ways than using adhesives to stick microphones, as was found in finance minister Pranab Mukherjee's office. He said an agency could place a round-robin copper wire inside a phone, thus converting the phone's receiver into a transmitter that continuously relayed all conversations in the room to a pre-determined recorder.

Another sophisticated way is to modify the 3-pin plug to convert it into a transmitter. The agencies also resort to the technique of flooding the room with high frequency radio radiations, using a laser beam focused on a windowpane to pick up micro-vibrations etc.

Another official said these days, agencies resort to bugging computers and off-the-air interception of mobile phones. "Ultimately, the effort is to know as much about what s/he talks, does and if possible what he is thinking," he said. So, comprehensive snooping would include "listening into his office, recording his computer activities and listening in on his phone," he explained.

A trader involved in the sale of such transmitters said several corporate houses were using them for internal activities. He said a switched off mobile phone could be converted into a micro-transmitter. "So, from a meeting room, one can transmit all the proceedings to a pre-determined recorder even though the mobile phone is switched off," he said.

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