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The Bug Boom

Electronic eavesdropping--except by law-enforcement officials armed with a court order--and the sale of bugging equipment have been against the law in the United States since 1968. Yet in these post-Watergate days, it is as easy to buy a bug in this country as it was to get bootleg booze during Prohibition. Electronic-parts distributors across the country sell listening and recording devices that as often as not end up in the hands of would-be political snoopers, industrial spies and just plain nosy neighbors both over the counter and through the mail as openly as they peddle tape cassettes.

What's more, the bugging equipment comes cheap. Tiny FM microphones that pick up sounds and transmit them up to 300 feet, where they can be picked up on an eavesdropper's car radio, typically retail for just $8 and $10. And even quite sophisticated surveillance equipment is well within the reach of any spy, professional or amateaur. One device lets a snooper eavesdrop through the victim's own telephone at a distance of hundreds of miles. Price: only about $200. Many private detectives have even learned to make their own bugs. "A simple bug is only an FM transmitter," explains one expert. "It's as easy to make as the old crystal set."

Blizzard: The blizzard of bugs is by no means an American phenomenon. If anything, bugging is even more prevalent in Japan, where the law is more lax. It is estimated that Japanese companies--most of them small outfits of no more than ten employees operating out of apartments or houses--each month turn out about 50,000 bugs, which are then sold in camera shops, airports and hotel lobbies as well as through electronics shops. Japanese bugs aren't quite as cheap as their U.S. counterparts, but the cost is hardly prohibitive. FM transmitters that weigh a bit more than half an ounce and transmit up to 1,600 feet retail for from $85 to $100. A microphone-transmitter that supposedly will pick up conversations through a 3-foot concrete wall costs about $680. And what the Japanese bugmakers don't sell at home, they can peddle easily on brisk markets in the U.S. and other countries.

With bugs now both abundant and cheap, thanks to improved technology, it is not surprising that the art of bugging has spread more and more from police departments and political-campaign offices to corporate boardrooms. One U.S. debugging expert claims to have found fourteen taps on a single telephone in a Detroit business office. And just last month, the Textile Workers Union of America sued J.P. Stevens Co. for $71 million, charging that the big textile manufacturer had bugged the motel room of one of its organizers, a charge the company denied.

Skirting: If the sale of bugs is illegal, why aren't the laws enforced? One reason is that law-enforcement officials want the bugs to be readily available for their own use. But mostly it's a matter of the bugmakers neatly skirting the law by wrapping their snooping gear in an innocent disguise. For example, Sid Levy, general manager of Saxton Products, Congers, N.Y., admits his company sells a small wireless transmitter, but he adds quickly: "It's a toy. You know, for bird watchers and stuff. It will pick up the sounds of birds in the backyard and will transfer the sound to an FM frequency." Others suggest they sell products that mothers can use to listen in on their babies while they do their housework. Many ads even carry the warning that the bugs are not to be used to infringe on anyone's privacy.

However, with annual sales of the equipment running into the millions, there's no doubt that the vast majority of bugs are used for snooping. As Takao Yoshioka, a sales agent for Cony Electronics, which sells heavily in the U.S., admits: "We are not very much concerned about how the customers use the devices, although of course, we hope they use them for only legitimate purposes."

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