The FBI is Tracking Whom?

They’re tracking a college student in Silicon Valley. He’s 20, partially Egyptian, and studying marketing at Mission College. He found the tracking device attached to his car. Near as he could tell, what he did to warrant the FBI’s attention is be the friend of someone who did something to warrant the FBI’s attention.

Afifi retrieved the device from his apartment and handed it over, at which point the agents asked a series of questions ­ did he know anyone who traveled to Yemen or was affiliated with overseas training? One of the agents produced a printout of a blog post that Afifi’s friend Khaled allegedly wrote a couple of months ago. It had “something to do with a mall or a bomb,” Afifi said. He hadn’t seen it before and doesn’t know the details of what it said. He found it hard to believe Khaled meant anything threatening by the post.

Here’s the Reddit post:

bombing a mall seems so easy to do. i mean all you really need is a bomb, a regular outfit so you arent the crazy guy in a trench coat trying to blow up a mall and a shopping bag. i mean if terrorism were actually a legitimate threat, think about how many fucking malls would have blown up already.. you can put a bag in a million different places, there would be no way to foresee the next target, and really no way to prevent it unless CTU gets some intel at the last minute in which case every city but LA is fucked…so…yea…now i’m surely bugged : /

Here’s the device. Here’s the story, told by the student who found it.

This weird story poses three sets of questions.

  1. Is the FBI’s car surveillance technology that lame? Don’t they have bugs that are a bit smaller and less obtrusive? Or are they surveilling so many people that they’re forced to use the older models as well as the newer, smaller, stuff?

    From a former FBI agent:

    The former agent, who asked not to be named, said the device was an older model of tracking equipment that had long ago been replaced by devices that don’t require batteries. Batteries die and need to be replaced if surveillance is ongoing so newer devices are placed in the engine compartment and hardwired to the car’s battery so they don’t run out of juice. He was surprised this one was so easily found.

    “It has to be able to be removed but also stay in place and not be seen,” he said. “There’s always the possibility that the car will end up at a body shop or auto mechanic, so it has to be hidden well. It’s very rare when the guys find them.”

  2. If they’re doing this to someone so tangentially connected to a vaguely bothersome post on an obscure blog, just how many of us have tracking devices on our cars right now — perhaps because of this blog? Really, is that blog post plus this enough to warrant surveillance?

    Afifi’s father, Aladdin Afifi, was a U.S. citizen and former president of the Muslim Community Association here, before his family moved to Egypt in 2003. Yasir Afifi returned to the United States alone in 2008, while his father and brothers stayed in Egypt, to further his education he said. He knows he’s on a federal watchlist and is regularly taken aside at airports for secondary screening.

  3. How many people are being paid to read obscure blogs, looking for more college students to surveil?

Remember, the Ninth Circuit Court recently ruled that the police do not need a warrant to attach one of these things to your car. That ruling holds true only for the Ninth Circuit right now; the Supreme Court will probably rule on this soon.

Meanwhile, the ACLU is getting involved:

Brian Alseth from the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington state contacted Afifi after seeing pictures of the tracking device posted online and told him the ACLU had been waiting for a case like this to challenge the ruling.

“This is the kind of thing we like to throw lawyers at,” Afifi said Alseth told him.

“It seems very frightening that the FBI have placed a surveillance-tracking device on the car of a 20-year-old American citizen who has done nothing more than being half-Egyptian,” Alseth told

Posted on October 13, 2010 at 6:20 AM105 Comments


Mace Moneta October 13, 2010 6:42 AM

The device looks vaguely pipe-bomb-like. In my movie threat scenario, they used this device and intentionally placed it to be found so that the police would get called. Under the pretext of investigating a possible bomb, they could have performed a more extensive search without a warrant – which may be difficult to get in this case (since there appears to be no cause).

What they probably didn’t expect it the calm response and public examination.

Henning Makholm October 13, 2010 6:50 AM

The incriminating reddit post seem to be saying nothing but what Bruce Schneier has been pointing out for years, modulo grammar and capitalization. Bruce, do you have trouble flying?

Jens Kubieziel October 13, 2010 7:02 AM

There was a similar case in Germany some years ago. Some guy found a tracking device attached to his car. His lawyer asked several german LEAs (BKA, LKA). All denied attaching the device. So he tried to sell it on Ebay. The BKA claimed then that it was their property and wanted it back. They sued the guy for selling stolen things. An image (and german report) is here:

Clive Robinson October 13, 2010 7:08 AM

“20 year-old American citizen who has done nothing more than being half Egyptian”

It’s a little more than that he travelled whilst not part of his family to become a student.

In the UK we are constantly being told that terrorists are recruiting young males of middle east decent to be radicalised at Uni or other places of Further Education.

Sadly on numbers alone there is a correlation and that’s how it’s played these days “by the numbers” it’s stupid for many reasons but then we know that profiling is usually nothing other than CYA…

Also there is the point about the more people being watched the easier it is to explain why you missed the one that happens.

Information Overload is a fine defence (except for the pions) and get’s you more resources should something go wrong after all you onlt have to see the fine example of the DHS for this…

Q October 13, 2010 7:17 AM

I’m almost cynical enough to think that the FBI targeted the posting not because it included an arabic name and had ‘bomb’ in it, but because it was a cogent and articulate argument against the giving more power to the security state.

John Lamont October 13, 2010 7:17 AM

Massive over-surveillance would explain why they are using an apparently obsolete model – all the modern units are already deployed.

wiredog October 13, 2010 7:23 AM

From the Wired article:
“he was planning a short business trip to Dubai in a few weeks… has two teenage brothers in Egypt whom he supports financially. …

Afifi’s father, Aladdin Afifi, was a U.S. citizen and former president of the Muslim Community Association here, before his family moved to Egypt in 2003. Yasir Afifi returned to the U.S. alone in 2008, while his father and brothers stayed in Egypt, to further his education he said. He knows he’s on a federal watchlist and is regularly taken aside at airports for secondary screening.”

This fairly closely fits the profile of someone you want to keep an eye on, actually.

Of course I realize that profiling based on how someone acts, rather than on how they look, is, ummm, well, actually /exactly/ what we want to be doing.

Clive Robinson October 13, 2010 7:34 AM

With regards to,

“The former agent, … said the device was an older the device was an older model of tracking equipment that had long ago been replaced by devices that don’t require batteries.”

Yes battery only systems are very old hat (but still the only effective method for somethings)

“… so newer devices are placed in the engine compartment and hardwired to the car’s battery”

Err they are old models as well as they are fairly easilt detected in about 1/2 hour with a mutimeter and a bit of knowledge.

There are devices available that have on board generators and use various forms of mechanical energy that is readily available.

I have seen one quite small device that has an “impeller system” that you can push up the exhaust (tail) pipe or attach underneath the vehical using a magnet or quick set glue etc and use the air flow when the vehical is in motion.

Some even use small solar cells.

The trick is a rechargable battery and “energy managment”.

Others are a spin off of PSRB and “animal tracking” development and use very little power very very infrequently.

The point is these devices need only transmit when the vehical is effectivly “lost from sight” to enable re-acquisition.

Which means they only need transmit only very very occasionaly and only on command of some kind.

A unit little larger than a watch will last 5-20years with only indirect daylight and work anywhere in the world all for less than 20USD BOM.

James October 13, 2010 7:51 AM

My disappointment with this situation was that the device was not torn apart and its innards documented. If it had been on my car, I would have made sure a friend of mine with even the remotest knowledge of electrics would be taking it apart.

Of course, that in itself is a security issue that law enforcement have to contend with. If you’re sticking these things on cars, you can’t exactly expect to have control over the final whereabouts of the device.

Richard Steven Hack October 13, 2010 8:17 AM

“This fairly closely fits the profile of someone you want to keep an eye on, actually. ”

This fits the profile of absolutely every foreign born student from anywhere in the world in this country.

Or haven’t you noticed that the tech courses in universities in this country are overwhelmingly dominated by foreign students, especially from Asia?

The ONLY reason this guy was targeted is because he was an acquaintance of someone who recognized the stupidity of the “War on Terror”.

That blog post was NOTHING compared to stuff I’ve put up on the Internet on countless sites for the last several years, especially since the Iraq war in 2003 when I got interested (purely theoretically) again in terrorism. And I have a felony record directly related to such matters.

But I’m not Muslim.

Of course, these days they’re touting “home grown terrorism” as the new big threat, so I’ll probably be in Guantanamo next week.

If the FBI are monitoring this blog:

Hey, guys! You’re morons. Have a nice day – and I hope the next perp you try to apprehend waxes your butts.

Josh O. October 13, 2010 8:19 AM

Have you checked your car Bruce? That incriminating post sounds a whole lot like many of your blog entries, as someone has already pointed out.

Knowing the eagerness of the FBI to spend a lot of resources based on the most tenuous links, wouldn’t a good way for the terrorist to improve their chances be to run interference by purposely saturating the FBI with red herrings like this?

Crap, now that I’ve said that, I guess I need to go check my car.

karrde October 13, 2010 8:24 AM

I wonder if this young man had any enemies who reported ‘suspicious behavior’ to the FBI.

What a way to exact revenge on someone with an Arabic name and foreign connections.

On a final note, I too am disappointed that the tracker didn’t end up on another vehicle, or dismembered, before the FBI learned about it.

wiredog October 13, 2010 8:31 AM

You’re right Richard, we shouldn’t target someone just because he travels to the middle east, has a father who moved to Egypt from the US, and supports family who live there. We should just profile based on, well, what, exactly? If someone fits the profile of people who have, in the past, participated in attacks on the US should we just ignore them in favor of checking out random grandmothers in pursuit of some idea of fairness? Should we not have any security at all?

Maybe we should, instead, go all Stasi and suspect everyone? Is that what you want?

Or, maybe, we can say “This guy fits the profile we’ve developed, so let’s check him out more thoroughly.”

Roy October 13, 2010 8:37 AM

And now all the world’s bombers have a new trick for their book. Make a bomb that will be mistaken for an FBI tracking device and plant it on the target vehicle. Anyone inspecting the vehicle for bombs will see the device, and, in fear of antagonizing the FBI, will leave it in place. When the human target boards the vehicle, make that special call.

First Timer October 13, 2010 8:52 AM


As I understand it, profiling for terrorists is kind of like looking for the needle in the haystack by setting fire to every haystack you find. Sure, you may find the occasional needle, but you’ll also burn a lot of hay in the process.

kangaroo October 13, 2010 8:58 AM

wiredog: “Maybe we should, instead, go all Stasi and suspect everyone? Is that what you want?”

Isn’t planting tracking devices on folks suspected of being dissidents without any positive evidence already going “all stasi”??

What the fuck does it take? As I remember, at least E. German border cops were polite, back in the day…

J October 13, 2010 9:06 AM

The bug is actually relatively small, but if you want it to work for more than a week without needing to be physically present, you’re going to need a big battery. That’s what the pipe-shaped thing was.

jammit October 13, 2010 9:27 AM

FBI: You have our secret tracking device.
jammit: Prove it’s yours and I’ll give it back.

Matt from CT October 13, 2010 10:01 AM

The point is these devices need only
transmit when the vehical is effectivly
“lost from sight” to enable

I think many (especially older ones) don’t transmit real time. They’re physically retrieved and downloaded later.

Bluetooth would be viable for a drive-by data download, and so would be a cellphone set to turn on and transmit the data log once a day. Both far lower power needs then real time tracking, and for the purposes of most of this surveillance the suspects don’t warrant the resources for such real time surveillance.

I would think it would be interesting to collect several and show up at Defcon with them split open.

vexorian October 13, 2010 10:06 AM

Holy deity-that’s-not-yours! Is that thing really larger than 1997 cell phones?

My theory: That’s a bait bug, the real one is still tracking the student.

NobodySpecial October 13, 2010 10:27 AM

“Afifi’s father, Aladdin Afifi, was a U.S. citizen and former president of the Muslim Community Association here, before his family moved to Egypt in 2003. Yasir Afifi returned to the U.S. alone in 2008, while his father and brothers stayed in Egypt”

Replace ‘Muslim’ with ‘Jewish’ and ‘Egypt’ with ‘Israel’ – would he still be worth keeping an eye on ?

Last time I looked we weren’t actually at war with Egypt and being Muslim isn’t illegal yet

Trichinosis USA October 13, 2010 10:30 AM

Given what they can do with RFIDs these days, this is probably small potatoes. But yeah, ACLU. And yeah, it should have been dissected. (Although I’m still cracking up about the suggestion in the comments section on Reddit to drop it down the Chilean mine shaft.)

dlo October 13, 2010 10:34 AM

the pipe like part is most likely a series of batteries that while in series, the length of the pack of them reflects a period of time that the device would be required to be in use. if its really old, it probably will be transmitting while the car is parked and unused, if its for tracking it may only have a short range for a following car to find.

These days, your cellphone gps function will report your phones location to the fbi anytime they care to know where it is.
the supreme court and others may have tried to make rules about niceties like warrants etc, but when was the fbi ever a law abiding, rights respecting, professional police, they are just a bunch of teaparty nutcases who surveil peace activists and churchgoers.

Probably the whole incident was about using older equipment and greenhorn agents for training in following an arab subject. This would also explain rude response to having their device discovered.

Alan October 13, 2010 10:40 AM

Vexorian and I think on the same wavelength. The first bug you find was the one you were meant to find. Maybe even the second, or third… How many do you have to find before you know you’ve found them all?

Adam October 13, 2010 10:56 AM

So say I found a device like this on my car. What duty do I have to report this device? What laws am I breaking if I just toss the thing in the back of a dumpster, sell it on ebay or just smash it to bits with a hammer? If the thing doesn’t explicitly say “property of US government” and they never bother to tell me they’ve attached said device, what possible recourse do they have if it happens to get “lost”?

John W October 13, 2010 11:07 AM

No offense to either the FBI or Afifi, but I suspect we’re not hearing the whole story from either side on this. It is in both parties’ best interest to only tell the press the parts of the story that fit their own self interests.

Think about all the times you’ve seen a story in the news about an event that you are close to and know all the details about, and how many of those details were omitted or flat out wrong in the story you read.

cipherpunk October 13, 2010 11:15 AM

I wonder how the Ninth Circuit court ruling would be interpreted if an every day citizen decided to do the same thing to a law enforcement agent. Probably the outcome would be like what happened to Elliot Madison.

It is ridiculous how law enforcement try to justify the use of warrentless GPS tracking as being no different then having 24/7 surveillance. Semantics I guess…

notreally October 13, 2010 11:24 AM


FWIW, SCOTUS has been steadily expanding warrantless search exceptions for decades.

There’s a couple of ways you can parse the 4th amendment. Basically, you can either see all segments as related (unreasonable searches/seizures are prohibited, searches require a warrant, no warrant shall be issued without probable cause, thus a reasonable and non-prohibited search is one where a warrant was obtained via a showing of probable cause), or you can interpret them separately (searches/seizures must be reasonable; also, when a warrant is issued, there must be probable cause). SCOTUS has increasingly adopted the latter perspective where warrantless searches may take place so long as they are “reasonable” (with reasonableness being determined by a standard of the court’s choosing). The standard most used in GPS tracker cases has been that of a “reasonable expectation of privacy” [first articulated in Katz v US (1967 and adopted in Smith v Maryland (1979)]. Thus far there’s been a circuit split between DC and the 7th and 9th circuits. The government’s argument is that motorists have no reasonable expectation of privacy on roads or in driveways and that GPS tracking does not differ substantially from tailing suspects with a patrol car.

I’m finding it hard to take your “fbi” statement seriously but FWIW the FBI has a long history of spying on domestic unpopulars (protesters, political figures, civil rights leaders, suspected homosexuals). There was a big fuss over COINTELPRO in the 70s, the Church Commission held Congressional hearings, and the AG/DOJ/FBI voluntarily adopted some standards which the three letter agencies have been trying to roll back ever since then (pretty much a fait accompli after the Reno DOJ laid the groundwork and then 9/11 happened).

Spying on protesters or administration critics is nothing new. It most certainly predates the modern Tea Party. In fact, libertarian/conservatives groups, along with third party voters, antiwar protesters, environmentalists, Muslim-Americans and many others have been profiled and spied on by the hotbeds of lucrative paranoia created by homeland security funding for “fusion centers” and the like.

Brad Wheeler October 13, 2010 11:34 AM

Without getting too irate about this situation, I wonder how long it’s going to be before this whole security-before-liberty over-surveillance trend comes tumbling down. They’re going to plant one of these on somebody important or influential, he’s going to hire high priced, extremely loud lawyers, the thing is going to go on national TV, etc. So far the media has been pretty silent on the subject but eventually there’ll be a big furor and this sort of thing will die down until the next big national crisis.

notreally October 13, 2010 11:41 AM

Just to clarify my last paragraph:

There’s obviously profiling, intelligence gathering, and direct surveillance being undertaken by traditional law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Then there’s profiling and intelligence-gathering by relatively new domestic intelligence organizations/divisions created post-9/11 and generally funded by homeland security grants. They tend not to be transparent, but from what I’ve gathered, it seems like amateur hour with a heaping dose of institutionalized paranoia, insufficient oversight and accountability, and homeland security funding for the purposes of identifying and gathering intel on ‘potential domestic threats’. Like all good bureaucracies, they need to justify their funding. Hence you get ridiculous leaked ‘terrorism bulletins’ warning law enforcement about fracking protesters in Pennsylvania or third party supporters in Missouri.

Brandioch Conner October 13, 2010 11:50 AM

“If someone fits the profile of people who have, in the past, participated in attacks on the US should we just ignore them in favor of checking out random grandmothers in pursuit of some idea of fairness? Should we not have any security at all?”

I’d be interested in the profile of a group that has NOT “participated” in such in the past.


“Maybe we should, instead, go all Stasi and suspect everyone? Is that what you want?”

And you think we aren’t already there because … ?

Trichinosis USA October 13, 2010 11:54 AM

More thoughts… Egypt has actually been involved with some of the rendition processing. So not only are we not really at war with them, there’s actually been cooperative contact between our intelligence community and theirs.

HOWEVER, Egypt is also caught between Israel and Palestine. Egypt is frequently how goods get smuggled into Palestine via tunnels. So spying on an Egyptian might advance a cooperative intelligence venture between Israel and the US.

This playing to both sides of the conflict within our own intelligence community – at the expense of OUR citizens – has got to stop. We need to not have factions and subsets of our own government taking sides on the Middle Eastern conflict, or we end up with it in our own backyards – which is exactly what happened on 9/11/01. Which, incidentally, the entire nation is STILL waiting to see anyone held accountable for.

Petréa Mitchell October 13, 2010 11:58 AM

Now I feel smug about not owning a car. Guess I should go check my bicycle for highly sophisticated hidden bugs wired into its electrical system… oh wait, it doesn’t have one.

Heaven help the FBI if their suspect uses public transit, or decides to take up a healthier lifestyle and start walking places.

c October 13, 2010 12:05 PM

@Richard Steven Hack wrote:
If the FBI are monitoring this blog:
Hey, guys! You’re morons. Have a nice day – and I hope the next perp you try to apprehend waxes your butts. —-endit

Even though I have nothing to hide, still I absolutely don’t want to be tracked, or to live in a society where warrantless tracking is permitted. However, there’s a big difference between that and hoping that a perp “waxes their butts” (American slang; it does not mean he wanted the FBI to have shiny butts).

Richard – you say you’re a felon? I’d never have guessed.

Shane October 13, 2010 12:18 PM

The only surprising thing to me was how such an obviously benign comment sparked a 6-month waste of our tax dollars. Makes me wanna throw up.

Shane October 13, 2010 12:20 PM

Subsequently, if that’s all it takes to give a half-dozen FBI agents the run-around for 6 months, I can only imagine how many tax dollars Bruce’s comments have wasted over the years 😉

Standartenfuhrer Skorzeny October 13, 2010 12:48 PM

@cipherpunk: “I wonder how the Ninth Circuit court ruling would be interpreted if an every day citizen decided to do the same thing to a law enforcement agent.”

Given that law enforcement works for the everyday citizen, that sounds like an entirely reasonable thing to do. Maybe when one of these devices eventually shows up on eBay, someone can repurpose it. 🙂

Flame October 13, 2010 12:51 PM

If the new trackers use power from the car’s electrical system, isn’t that thieft of electricity? If so, then the FBI is guilty of a crime and should be held accountable.

Aviatrix October 13, 2010 1:00 PM

I would think that an American who hasn’t said or written something very similar to that in the last nine years would be in the minority. You could probably find a dozen similar posts on my blog about holes in airport security. After the government uses the media to whip the entire country into a frenzy about being alert to the potential for terrorism, they should commend not censure the citizens who respond by pointing out where the terrorists could strike. See something, say nothing, or risk interrogation and arrest.

Andrew October 13, 2010 1:15 PM

Ebay. If the FBI wants their device back so bad, let them bid for it against other interested parties. It’s the American way.

Afifi considered selling the device on Craigslist before the FBI showed up.

I’d want proof of mailing, myself — I don’t want to sell to terrorists or government agencies who are too lazy to set up a fake identity or cough up a real one. (If terrorists buy it, it’s a convenient lead for the FBI to trace, so in a way, a public service.)

Quietly buying it back on Ebay would have been much cheaper for the FBI than paying for all the lawyers to counter what the ACLU is going to do with this case.

I’m imagining a cross between this case and what happened at the Boston airport with the flashing T-shirt.

“We had to shoot. He had an IED in his hands! Well, actually, it was a tracking device that we planted and he removed — but it looked like a device. See those wires! It had batteries!”

The next mechanic which encounters one of these should call the local police bomb squad. Just to be safe.

Nick P October 13, 2010 1:53 PM

@ c

“waxes their butts”

Not so sure about the American slang part. Never heard it before and I’m sure I’ll probably never hear it here in the South. I guess if one hangs out in enough gay bars, they start thinking what they here there is “normal” American slang. That’s my guess, anyway.

Phillip October 13, 2010 1:54 PM

Does this mean the kid gets a free government quality tracking device?

You know what they say about finders keepers…

icebike October 13, 2010 1:54 PM


The device in the photos is NOT THAT OLD. It was certified by the FCC in 2006. That is is still in use 4 years later is not all that surprising.

Do some Digging on the FCC site for FCC ID O9EQ2438F-M. (The radio unit shown in the pictures).

This device is a modification of a general CDMA (Verizon) transmitter used to relay data thru cell towers. Its a general purpose device that you can buy in kit form.

This specific certification is certified to work in proximity to what is called a TracPak, which is separately certified device with FCC ID NBI-MTAG216.

The TracPak is a device about the size of a dollar bill, only thicker, designed to be stuck inside of bundles of bills. It has a low power GPS receiver with a short range VHF transmitter. (FCC documents redacted).

Placing the Tracpak near the the O9EQ2438F-M allows tracking thru cell towers.

As pictured, the guy only has HALF the unit. He doesn’t show the GPS receiver portion. That other portion may still be hidden in his car, (perhaps with another cell transmitter).

The key point is that this unit was designed to track stolen money “bricks”. Used commonly by Banks and armored car companies, its inserted in bundles of bills.

So why were they tracking this guy with a money tracking system?

Perhaps there is more to this story than meets the eye.

NobodySpecial October 13, 2010 1:55 PM

@ Petréa Mitchell
The FBI fitting tracking devices to public transport could be useful – or at least they could just stop the current practice here of sending them on random routes at random times to prevent terrorists knowing where they are.

Nick P October 13, 2010 1:59 PM

@ Brandioch Conner on Privacy Status

“And you think we aren’t already there because … ?”

Agreed. The U.S. already has more in common with old police states than the Republic it was intended to be. Privacy wise, there are two main threats to innocent people. If your targeted, they can easily nab suspects by pervasive surveillance and their tendency to omit important details in prosecution, esp. military tribunals that provide no defense attorney. If your not targeted, you can be done in via one of the thousands of bizarre, pointless laws that courts enforce. All it takes is for a person that doesn’t like you to see some evidence in your public profile to have you convicted on some BS charge.

In light of dumb laws and over-aggressive prosecutors, privacy by default seems like the best strategy for the common good. This is true even if we miss a few crooks or terrorists in the process.

NobodySpecial October 13, 2010 1:59 PM

That happened at least once in Northern Ireland during the euphemisms.

There were so many branches of police,army and intelligence running around spying on everyone and each other – and since they regarded each other with more suspicion than the terrorists – there was little cooperation.

A ‘device’ was found on a politicians car that sparked a major city wide bomb alert – it was found to be a tracking device put there by another agency.

Ian Mason October 13, 2010 2:09 PM

“… hardwired to the car’s battery so they don’t run out of juice.”

In the UK this would be the criminal offence of abstracting electricity.

Anon412 October 13, 2010 2:13 PM

Afifi’s father was a past President of the Muslim Communities Association, a division of the Wahhabist Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), and is affiliated with the terrorist Muslim Brotherhood. That does make the FBI’s suspicion far more reasonable.

John F October 13, 2010 2:19 PM

Another thought, along the lines of the bait bug:

How valuable is it to the FBI to have the general population thinking “Oh, so that’s what a tracking device looks like – nope, there isn’t one on my car”, at which point they miss the extra black piece of plastic attached to the fuse panel under the hood.

The logic works – plant an obsolete device/broken/useless device, wait for it to be found and pictures distributed, then show up and make a big deal about needing the super-secret tracking device back, right now.

JRR October 13, 2010 2:19 PM

RE: being afraid to antagonize the FBI.
Heck, if I found one of these I’d probably leave it on a city bus under a seat and let them wonder why I’m just going in circles in a city, or maybe stick it to the bottom side of a train boxcar and let them wonder why I’m suddenly traveling cross country. Bonus points for putting it on a ferry or something that goes over the water. I would say freight container going overseas but I bet these things use the cell network so they wouldn’t work offshore.

The device doesn’t look that low tech, it just has a big PVC pipe full of D cells to keep it running for a long time.

Major Variola October 13, 2010 2:40 PM

What we need are gps-tracking “throwies” (like the LED throwies)
so we can reverse the
panopticon and monitor those in
uniforms. After all, if you don’t
need a warrant, anyone can do it.
Its just like taking a photograph.

Historian October 13, 2010 2:56 PM

@ Brandioch Conner
@Nick P

“And you think we aren’t already there because … ?”

…because, despite more powers being given to US LEAs and TLAs over the past couple of decades, we’re still light years from Stasi’s Germany, or any number of other totalitarian regimes. You may have a valid concern about the direction the US is headed, but to say the US is already “all Stasi” cheapens the experience East Germans actually lived through.

Read a little history and apply some perspective.

Clive Robinson October 13, 2010 3:19 PM

@ Petrea Mitchell,

“Guess should go check my bicycle for highly sophisticated hidden bugs… Heaven help the FBI if their suspect uses public transit, or decides to take up a healthier lifestyle…”

Bicycle’s are a surveillance cops worst nightmare.

As you have realised they are very difficult to put devices on / in and have no power source.

Also as they are mega expensive and easy to steal many people don’t leave them unatended in a predictable place unlike their cars which they just parkup outside their house, so placing a bug on a bycicle anywhere but under the seat is not easy.

But also bicycle’s are very very difficult to follow you cann’t do it from foot and anybody who’s a bit clued up on a bicycle is well neigh impossible to follow by even a team of cars, just ake a short cut across the park etc or down an alley or the wrong way upa a one way street.

Even tracking with a helicopter is difficult as unlike a motorist they don’t have an engine to drown out the chopers noise.

In essence the only way to follow them has been from another bicycle and guess what there are to few bicycles on the road for it not to be very obvious. And most surveillance cops are just not fit (to much sitting in cars and junk food) so they could be out cycled very easily.

Sadly the recent development of crowd watching micro UAV’s has evened it up, but like chopers they need a noisy engine if they have to travel at more than joging pace.

However if you want to be really nasty to the surveillance cops get one of those Chinese bicycles with the 1KW electric motor in the wheel hub. With a tiny bit of work you can make the bicycle do over 40MPH on the flat for a mile or so.

Peter October 13, 2010 3:39 PM

I’m actually surprised that the FBI seems to have acted with common sense in this case. They didn’t put this device on the author of the blog post, who was almost certainly not serious, they investigated and found a possibly suspicious friend of his who had ties to the middle east and was already on a watch list. They probably could have gained more info from just seizing both of their computers, which I would have expected 5 years ago, but chose to just track a car. The only thing I don’t like is the no warrant part, they probably had enough to get one in this case.

No One October 13, 2010 4:14 PM

@Peter: It’s reasonable to track “suspicious” friends of people who are making thought-experiment style blog posts about terrorism? Why?

I mean, if I, in a blog post, write, “Wow, you could kill a bunch of people easily and messily just by [X]!” then every Arab I know is now fair game for the FBI? What sense does it make that something /I/ say implicate someone else that I didn’t reference at all?

satcomm5 October 13, 2010 4:15 PM

If I can by a GPS tracker from fee-bay the size of a match box that runs for months or uses the cars motion to power it`s self ?
This just means its a stunt for what ever reason.

In reality Our Gov friends would have a tracker the size of a pea

you dont need to “bug” him he is already bugged with a GSM phone?


Anonymous Ham October 13, 2010 4:41 PM

It is really, really simple to jam commercial GPS– even at very low power levels. I suppose the guilty already know this; but do the innocents?

MW October 13, 2010 5:13 PM

If I found such a device on my car, and recognized it for what it was, I’d leave it there, then tell a bunch of ACLU/EFF or similar whitehat hackers that I had found such a device in my car, so far as I know it is still there, but I’m not going to be checking on it.
Then when the reverse engineering photos of ‘my’ device hit wikileaks and the three-letter-agency comes banging on my door, I truthfully don’t know who took it (although I could provide a list of suspects) nor when it was taken.

Peter E Retep October 13, 2010 6:11 PM

Who knew what, when, and why
is almost as much fun to read here
as in your movie plot contest.

I think you should run a “routine” partial occurence report as a feature,
and invite comment as a sort of Thematic Apperception Test.

Imperfect Citizen October 13, 2010 10:36 PM

@ Bruce, great post. On one of my many attempts to get help from my government (clearly not the act of a terrorist) I was told that the Patriot Act enables law enforcement to follow up counter terror leads without impediments. I’m thinking those impediments include the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, etc.

@Billswift re: car electrical system, I think you are correct. I tried to find it.

@BF Skinner, we’ve tried to find it. I’ll tell you what I know.

In 3/08 I had my son in the elementary school carline waiting for the parapros to take him out of the car, he was in kindergarten. Two police cars with uniformed officers arrived. One behind me the other on the side. One officer stood in front of my vehicle near the school door. I wondered why he was standing out in the drizzling rain like that but I had a kid in the car, so if you are a parent you know how that goes.
The other officer came behind my vehicle and bent over. I remember thinking how odd that was as he should have taken the sidewalk, he walked in a really weird route and stopped behind my car. It made no sense. My son was in the car because we had to wait til the parapros took the kids out of the vehicle to go in the building so you line up and wait with the engines off til they are good and ready to come out. My son says “mommy what’s that policeman doing behind the car?” I said, I don’t know. I figured he was tying his shoe. He stayed back there a long time. I mean he had time to tie his shoes over and over. I didn’t get out of the car and I see now I should have. Then the offucer got up and went into the school building. He came back out a few minutes later and paused behind the vehicle again. I wondered if I had a tail light out but I was reading a book to my kid and trying to keep him from getting too impatient as we waited for the parapros.
He left. Both marked police vehicles left. As I left the carline after my son was taken out of the vehicle by the parapro, a white truck followed me in traffic for a long time. I thought it was really weird. I noticed that there was a pencil mark under a number on my license plate. I thought that was weird as we don’t park in a city where the meter maids do that. Then I started noticing odd patterns and overhearing strange remarks. People seemed to be terribly interested in the contents of my shopping cart. I’m a middle aged woman, nondescript, and these 20 year old guys were making constant walk bys in the store as if they were memorizing what I had in my cart. At first I thought they were purse snatchers as they got that close. It was totally weird and didn’t fit normal life. Then I saw a guy with a clipboard doing that. He had a sheet of paper on it with types of foods and square boxes to check off next to the food names. It was that obvious, he followed me checking off the boxes.
I had just read the article in the WSJ in 08 about such observer programs and targeting of key cities for the data mining by the NSA. I had also read an article in the WSJ about the gps and the real time audio that were being used by law enforcement to track dope dealers and gang members. Then of course I read Bruce’s books/blog.

The next time something odd happened, before I caught on and then overheard observers, I was at a greenhouse. I parked and went in to buy a plant. I came back out and my car would not start. I called my husband and he came over, the hood was slightly opened and the battery cable was loose.

We searched, but can’t find anything. We had our car in the shop a few times, I think the folks watching us are better than the ones that student’s mechanic caught.

You can tell if you are being watched, they use people with no surveillance training. You will never be alone that’s the main thing. I would go to the library and a guy with a two way radio followed me through saying “she’s going here” “Now she’s coming towards me, what should I say to her.” Its that obvious. I had a woman sit next to me and say to her girlfriend “she just doesn’t have a clue that all these people are watching her, she just doesn’t have a clue.” Believe me, you will know. Think about perimeters.
Tenuous links:
My cousin lives in a city targeted by the federales it was written up in the WSJ in 08. He’s a Catholic and we are not from the Mid East, his folks have lived there since the 1950s.
My cousin’s daughter had a high school friend whose room mate at college was arrested for terrorism by the FBI recently. This room mate was one the college randomly threw in there.
I wrote a Congressman asking him to oppose a bill funding torture (it was written by a Congregation of nuns and we were urged as Christians to oppose the bill) in the name of Jesus who I follow.
I had a friend call me and she used key words to describe her kooky political theory about the enemy. Key words that caused a loud shriek to occur on the phone line. I mean it was loud and it kept on going. That I believe is like the software program the folks out east have running in the background on the telecomm game. I think its like the one verint describes. I’m pretty sure I read about it in Bamford’s book too.

@notreally “hotbeds of lucrative paranoia” I think you are right. I think the budget for counter terror for the feds is unsupervised, nobody can ask questions, and you can’t get help if they throw the Patriot Act over your case.

One thing I have to say, I called just about everyone for help. I even called the NSA. The people I spoke to there were very nice. I don’t think they have a clue what happens in observations. I don’t think they realize what the data collection business is like on the ground.

Its like group stalking. Some might call it crowdsourcing. I wonder if its the mystery shopper thing with those guys and the clip boards. It was odd. I think you folks on this blog would know if you were being watched. You just have to know what’s normal and what’s not normal. I had three guys follow me into a convent on three different times. Then they reused them on different jobs in different locations. Time, environment, distance, and demeanor.

Not Naomi October 13, 2010 11:33 PM

On reading the story I also made the assumption that the FBI found the post on it’s own, which lead them to ask for their equipment back within 2 days or so of the post.

Hmm, what if they didn’t find the blog on their own? There are millions of blogs and an endless stream of information on the web. Statistically, it would be more likely that some civilian contacted them after reading the blog. Probably ‘the citizen’ even contacted the specific office in California that would be involved. Just a thought.

Everyone believes the NSA has the entire world on their computers, and maybe they do, but if you think about what it takes to parse all that data, well, you’ll have a nervous breakdown, or three. Even the best software I’ve heard of is riddled with errors and false positives with regard to ‘searching’ algorithms.

If you did a global search on every document/blog that ever mentioned the words “bomb” or “FBI” or “tracking device” etc, how many human hours would it take to analyze that information?

So how would you go about running a daily search of the Internet to locate suspicious or important events? Maybe this ought to be the next reality contest.
It’s a hard problem.

By the way, anybody got a lift I can use to check out my car? That’s a new niche market, I’m sure.

Hum Ho October 14, 2010 3:52 AM


So how would you go about running a daily search of the Internet to locate suspicious or important events? Maybe this ought to be the next reality contest.

That brings to mind the claims that were more prevalent some years back (and which were seemingly also propagated by some US politicians) about the “Echelon” system that supposedly was capable to intercept any electronically transmitted message anywhere. In retrospect, if one accepts the “terrorist theory” of 9-11, this claim seems to be hype.

And in any case, the ability to intercept any electronically transmitted message anywhere does not equate to being able to intercept all electronically transmitted messages everywhere.

On another hand this statement in a recent article made me wonder what kind of machines e.g. NSA would have…perhaps something that can crack the most commonly used encryption keys? Of course this is purely speculative…

Which country has the most powerful supercomputers?
The list is voluntary and thus doesn’t include classified supercomputers owned by governments, which means that the real list can be quite different, depending on your favorite conspiracy theory.

Imperfect Citizen October 14, 2010 7:11 AM

I think there was a law in the late 1990s that the police can put a device on your vehicle in a public place. Its the protocols that happen after the device is on that will clue you in. People will talk about “clearing” your vehicle. “Is she inside?” “Yeah” “Good, we have to clear her vehicle” (loud radios used by people who don’t do surveillances) Then, you’ll see someone parked next to your vehicle on a cellphone. You’ll go in the store and peek out through the window. That person will get out of their vehicle and look under the front of your vehicle. As if they are looking for something.

BF Skinner October 14, 2010 7:15 AM

@Bruce “… the Ninth Circuit Court recently ruled that the police do not need a warrant to attach one of these things to your car. That ruling holds true only for the Ninth Circuit right now; the Supreme Court will probably rule on this soon.”

It would be more complete to mention that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said exactly the opposite in the same month. They ruled, that tracking for an extended period of time with GPS is an invasion of privacy that requires a warrant. We covered this on an earlier posting of yours. (anyway to index your Blog? It’s tough to find what’s previously been stated)

the 9th district covers California and eight other Western states.

BF Skinner October 14, 2010 7:20 AM

@Imperfect Citizen

The thing to watch for is patterns. Like clouds can look like a duck or a horse random occurances may seem to form a pattern of survellience.

Not saying the survellience isn’t there but the patterns seem to be information but they are really noise.

If the survellience is there it’ll leave traces, evidence that can be exposed.

If you can afford it I’d suggest getting a private investigator to go over your cars and houses for trackers and listening devices.

BF Skinner October 14, 2010 7:25 AM

@Imperfect Citizen


It is the nature of LEOs to want to project an aura of omniscience and omnipotence. If they’ve actually thought it out it’s a deterent…it cuts down on the arguments.

While there are some high performing stars they are few and valuable. Most of these people? They really just aren’t that good. Witness the FBIs latest fubar. A lot of their recent problems is that the average special agent at the FBI is very young, inexperienced.
State and Local people are even more pedestrian.

They’ll make mistakes. If you go over your property and find no trackers or listening devices then it’s possible that they are so well concealed you can’t find them but more likely, given the talent, that they aren’t there.

Jeffrey A. Williams October 14, 2010 10:46 AM

I am not at all surprised the ACLU is getting involved in this instance given the circumstances. FWIW, seems to me that there are some elements within some of our very execellent law enforcment agencies that seem to be a bit too concerned in regards to citizens that are of middle east decent. I also dislike but can understand the use of such tracking devices being attached without a warrent. Seems that due process should apply here, but did not.

Brandioch Conner October 14, 2010 12:19 PM

“…because, despite more powers being given to US LEAs and TLAs over the past couple of decades, we’re still light years from Stasi’s Germany, or any number of other totalitarian regimes.”

No one here has said that the USofA is a totalitarian regime.

What has been said is that the amount of government spying on its own citizens is equivalent to what those totalitarian regimes of the past did.

“You may have a valid concern about the direction the US is headed, but to say the US is already “all Stasi” cheapens the experience East Germans actually lived through.”

Again, it’s about the spying, not the politics.

Mark R October 14, 2010 12:20 PM

A friend of mine was investigated as a possible terrorist. He thinks some ill-advised comments to a co-worker about understanding some aspect of what motivates the terrorists got him in trouble. Apparently all it takes is a single accusation to get two FBI agents out to interrogate you at your workplace. I speculate that his dark-skinned appearance did not help him any either.

@ BF Skinner: “It is the nature of LEOs to want to project an aura of omniscience and omnipotence. If they’ve actually thought it out it’s a deterent…it cuts down on the arguments.”

I have often thought that’s one purpose served by CSI and all the other shows of that ilk. They give the citizenry the impression that it’s impossible to ever get away with any crime anywhere.

Nick N October 14, 2010 11:55 PM

I would have stuck it to a commuter train or long-haul truck, that would get them confused. “What tracking device?”

@Clive Robinson: “It’s a little more than that he travelled whilst not part of his family to become a student.”

OMG!! He travelled!? To another COUNTRY?! Why aren’t the Syrians playing with him right now?

Clive Robinson October 15, 2010 12:27 AM

@ BF Skinner,

“Everyone cites about Orwell. We should be citing Kafka.”

True but how about other genre such as “silent movies” such as the Keystone Cops?

@ Imperfect Citizen,

I cannot say if you are under electronic surveillance from the events you described. However your descriptions of the fumbling (if not lumbering and bumbling) police officer happens considerably more often than most in the surveillance industry would care to admit, thus it has a ver real ring of truth to it 8)

There are a number of problems with trying to decide if you are under electronic surveillance or not the most obvious being you cannot prove the negative (so you should not draw an inferance to the positive).

First off (1) there may be no physical evidence in or on your property, nore signs of ingress or egress.

Secondly (2) you may not recognise the physical evidence even if you can see and touch it.

Thirdly (3) you may not be able to detect it by the usual or established commercial methods.

The lack of physical evidence in or on a property (1) is more often the case than people realise.

This is not as many think because of the risk of devices being discovered, but more usually due to the difficulty of access now or in the future and the issues arising from it. Not least of which is unlimited civil liability (it still applies even when they have a lawfully issued warrant in most jurisdictions). Civil disputes or torts are usually resolved around financial restitution for a recognised harm being commited. With simple observation from a distance it is very difficult to show a direct harm, thus limits a potential claim befor it starts.

In times past surveilance from a distance was manually operated such as a parabolic mic or telephoto lens and required atleast six people (three teams of two) and thus expensive to carry out. Which acted as a natural limit on what could be done within a normal budget in more normal times.

However as with many human related activities technology has changed and continues to change the equation.

Historicaly the first to recognise and act on technology where not the authorities but those likley to be under surveillance themselves. Thus the first automated telephone taps (and the infinity bug) being invented by the Mafia.

As with all things where technology makes a sea state difference it ressults as the re-application of an existing technology for a novel use usually discovered by accident (ink jet) or as a consiquence of an undesired side effect (cling film).

The infrared laser mic is one such device, it was discovered by an engineer developing a laser range finder. The return beam was found to carry a lot of undesirable noise that the engineer could not identify with an oscilliscope, so he hooked up an audio amp to listen to it and heard sounds he distinctly recognised including voices.

Another “noise” discovery gave rise to the system described by Peter Wright in his book “Spy Catcher” where a medium wave RF signal is put on the phone line and thus “jumps” the “hook switch” as it sees the contacts not as an open circuit but a small value capacitor and the carbon granual microphone then amplitude modulates the RF signal with any audio in the room. The original effect was observed by Post Office telephone engineers (now BT) near the main BBC long and medium wave transmitters in Rugby in England and one in SE England (Aspidistra) that Bruce has blooged about in the past operated by the then F&CO Diplomatic Wirless Service (DWS) now absorbed into MI6 and co at Hanslope Park.

This secondary use of something a person under surveillance already has comes in many forms and gives rise to the person not recognising the device for what it is (2) being used for.

For instance the putting of a mains powerd “bug” in a muti socket plug adapter is now very well known. What is less well known is that most desk / side / stand / ceiling lights have the same ability to have bugs placed in them as do radios computers and all the usual mains powered domestic electronics thus obviating the use of batteries.

However electronic bugs do not need to be active they can be passive as was the case of the “Ambassador’s Eagle”. Supposadly the US Ambassador in Moscow was presented with a hand carved wooden eagle mounted on a metal frame as a goodwill gesture by a Russian youth organisation (some stories have it as the boy scouts). The US security services examined it using all their high tech equipment but could not discover any active components in it that could be used to transmit data. What they apparently failed to notice was two cavity resonators connected together via a diode. One cavity had a very very thin wall and a resonant slot the other connected via the diode had a similar resonant slot at an odd harmonic of the first resonator frequency. What happened was that the Russians “illuminated” the Ambassadors office with a high power transmitter tuned to a frequency on “the slope” of first cavity resonant frequency. The thin metal wall vibrated with any sound in the room and thus changed the cavity resonant frequency slightly thus moving “the slope” and thus the amount of energy in the cavity that could be coupled by the diode into the second cavity where it was radiated as both an AM and narow band FM (strictly PM) signal. The modulation being that of the audio in the Ambassador’s office.
Obviously as the bug only transmitted when being “illuminated” by the Russsian transmitter the Russians could turn it on and off at will remotly thus making traditional bug sweeps (3) ineffective.

Traditional bug sweeps as carried out by “most private agencies” these days really are very ineffective against anything other than old fashioned bugs (many don’t even pick up the “throw away” spread spectrum bugs I designed inthe early 1980’s). They work in two ways first by scanning for an emitted RF signal in a very limited (10MHz-3GHz ignoring broadcast and mobile phone ISM bands etc) part of the EM spectrum and secondly by checking for “known modulation” on any such signals.

You would be wasting a lot of money hiring such a firm as the only things they would find would have been put there by rank amatures or those who would have something to gain by you finding such a device…

People that actually do “National Security” level security scans use various “EmSec” techniques that are supposadly “Code word” protected and thus above “Top Secret”. However in reality they are not at all “unknown” techneiques, and any second year physics or electronics undergraduate knows the principles by which they work and could probably build the equipment required or get it as second hand lab equipment that might not even need modification.

Very briefly, thoreticaly our physical world is mainly about “forces” and the constraints of the laws of physics on them, the most (in)famous being E=MC^2. The consiquence is that as far as measurment goes something is either energy or mass or a combination of them and subject to the forces of nature such as gravity. Thus every physical thing in the range of natural human perception is detectable either by the force it exerts on other objects or by the way it is effected by other objects or forces.

The only question then is how do you observe these effects and triangulate them back to a specific object.

Well in the practical world in many ways…

For instance all objects either emit or absorbe heat untill a background environmental value is reached (laws of thermodynamics). Thus a very sensitive thermal imaging camera will detect objects that are not passive against a pasive background because of the thermal gradient their inefficient use of energy gives rise to.

However modern electronics can be so efficient you are looking for pico watts of power which would provide less of a thermal gradient than looking at a wooden broom handle that you had held for five minutes an hour after you had let go of it. So you would need a very sensitive thermal imager which has not yet (as far as I’m aware 😉 been invented yet.

However a “thermal gradient” exists because “heat flows” and just like water the amount that moves and how fast is dependent on the environment it’s in. That is a good insulator resists the flow of heat and a good conductor aids it’s flow. Now from this you will realise that all physical objects have a specific ability to conduct heat which is usually different to the other objects around them and this can be used to reveal their presence to even low cost comercial grade thermal imagers used for building inspection etc.

All you simply do is make the room either very cold or very hot and then change it to the other state over a shortish time period. Different rates of heat flow create the thermal gradient that reveals objects hidden from normal view.

Also all objects passive or otherwise effect energy fields in various ways normaly by absorbtion, transmission or reflection.

We litteraly see this all the time and we can use this to not only find objects but importantly enumerate their spectral response to any particular type of energy field.

One often seen consiquence of this is “red eye” in photographs. blood is red in colour, that is it reflects EM energy in the “red” part of the spectrum. One of the consiquences of being an eye is that to work it focuses light to a point. The same is true of all cameras and all radio “antennas”. Any energy that cannot be absorbed by the object at the point of focus gets reflected back along the transmission path in exactly the oposit direction. This is the reason we don’t normaly see “red eye” because the ambient light source is not from the point where our eye is. But with a small pocket camera it is sufficiently close for the effect to be seen when a flash is used.

One way to find hidden video or other cameras is to exploit the red eye effect and there are “spy gadgets” you can by that do this. Alternativly you can do similar by turning out the lights and holding a small “flash light” / “torch” up against the side of your head facing forwards and just look around slowly. Alternativly buy a pair of “craft glasses” that hold a lightweight light at either side of the spectical frams and look around with those in a dark room. Anything that flashes light back as a very bright spot is potentialy a camera and you can “walk up the beam” to take a closer look. Some of the more expert surveillance technicians are aware of this and thus use only medium wavelength IR cameras (low light BW CCTV) or long wavelength infrared cameras (basicaly a thermal imager) with visable light blocking filters in front of them. However this only stops visable light “red eye”.

You can get around this “hide behind a filter” problem with a very cheap “phone camera” and an LED torch where the “clear water” LED has been replaced by an IR LED from a TV remote control. The camera phone unlike the human eye is usually very receptive to short and medium and some long wavelength IR.

Interestingly the same principle applys to other transducers such as microphones which can be found with “pingers” and “bat detectors” basicaly you can send out a powerfull “click” which has energy in the sound spectrum from around 10KHz (top limit of those over ~30years) and 30MHz (specialised ultrasound equipment) which is the audio equivalent of wavelengths used for EM RADAR and the newer “terrahertz” scanners for looking through clothes etc.

I have seen student degree projects where they have taken the active head end from an ultrasound tape measure and mounted it at the focus of a small parabolic dish on a platform that rotates it’s azimuth and elevation to provide image data for robots. And it suffered badly from “achostic red eye” from other sound sensors such as microphones…

Another effect we observe every day is EM transmission through objects. Glass jars and bottles hold objects that we can see simply because EM radiation in the visable spectrum passes through the container but not the contents.

Well thermal imagers are cameras that work at medium and long wavelength infrared (IR) and X-ray machines work up in the ionising radiation part of the EM spectrum. The point is that all materials have different transmission spectra and thus at some frequency the container will be transparent and the contents not. For instance it is known that water absorbs (blocks) neutrons whilst most metals do not (and are transparent to them) so you can actually see water boil in a kettle, and there are video’s of this up on the Internet (note it’s an experiment you deffinatly do not want to be anywhere near 😉

I’m not suggesting that you go and get an X-ray machine but it is worth remembering that sometimes holding suspect objects up in a strong light shows hidden objects within that would not normaly be visable and likewise to the IR torch and mobile phone camera or low cost thermal
imager. Again there is equipment around such as medical ultrasound that does the same thing but with acoustic energy and you can occasionaly buy such equipment on E-bay etc (many “post room” bomb detectors use one or more of these principles).

Likewise the way light is absorbed differs between objects. And absorbtion also effects reflection at the surface of an object, as does the surface finish.

You can see this with black laser printed text on black paper. You cannot read the text straight on but some scanners and photocopiers can. And… if you change the incidence of the reflected light you can see the black plastic inks shinier surface against the papers mat surface. I used to do this years ago with other peoples unopened wage slips in their “pigeon holes” in the mail room 😉

These reflection effects are used in security for several purposes one is the strange orange brown paper you occasionaly see which at the light frequency used by the old photocopiers has the same absorbtion as the printer ink thus the document although readable is not photocopierable. Likewise security printing on bank notes changes the surface such that shadows can be seen at certain acute incidence angles something that neither laser printing or odinary printing can do.

Another is “false colour imaging” which is routienly used to detect fakes or touched up damage you see this in “luma lights” much loved on CSI programs where the “field agents” put on orange plastic glasses.

Well you don’t need to go out and buy a luma light and glasses to exploit this effect you can do it witha photograhers light and coloured camera lens filters. If mounted in a spectical format you can find all sorts of “oddities” that can show up where a surveillance operative has “installed” equipment.

All of these techniques can be adapted and as I said these “Code Word” above top secret techniques use either these principles of passive observation of radiant energy from an object or activly radiate an objects to detect it’s absorbtion, transmission or reflection in a directed energy field. Only they do it in a slightly more specialised form in which they have invested many many tax dollars to get that extra 9.9% of the way towards 100%.

Clive Robinson October 15, 2010 2:32 AM

@ Nick N,

“OMG!! He travelled!? To another COUNTRY?! Why aren’t the Syrians playing with him right now.”

Err he probably missed being put on the bus to the airport due to FBI (Federal Bureaucratic Incompetence) the first time.

And of course now Scotland does not alow CIA flights to stop to refuel when they are carrying “illegal combatants” etc etc I guess he doesn’t have enough points to be treated to a flight to go the long way around.

The whole story reminds me of a line from a radio play with two policmen one young the other old and the young one has suggested arresting a person who fit’s the description. The old one observes,

” If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, why call it a goose? But if the only description you have comes from Germimer Puddle Duck then chances are you are going to get hung as a sheep!”

Fjardeson October 15, 2010 8:57 AM

What to do with a tracking device you find? (Although I liked the suggestion of dropping it down the Chilean mine shaft, you’d wake up someone in a hurry flying to Chile to do it 🙂 )

I’d say stick it on either a vehicle that belongs to a rival/enemy, or better yet, a LEO vehicle. Love watching them chase each other.

Louie Feebe October 15, 2010 9:03 AM

A better spot is the rear-view mirror. Unlike an undercar location, it has a clear view of the sky for its GPS reception and transmission of your location. Thanks to map lights, etc; most have vehicle power within, so you need far less battery space.

And how can you be sure your mirror was not swapped out?

jacob October 15, 2010 9:24 AM

1. Might be more to the story.
2. People that post here might be on the short list?
3. Check my car. LOL
4. if they are watching us (people blogging here), we are pretty boring. They really should concentrate on better targets and use of their time.
5. Most burros really don’t care about us or want to read our emails or etc.
6. They still shouldn’t without a real warrant. It’s not a perfect solution, but better than this crap. And it’s only what we hear. What else is going on?
7. They should hire posters on this blog to help/test their methods. We could run circles around the median level of execution these stories protray.
8. Most people don’t really use encryption, including government agencies properly if at all. What makes me think they can accurately connect the dots? (burros). They are acting like a giant vacuum for information and trying to analyze it. Like the chimp and the typewriter. yep they suck. 😉 I really hope and would like to think that this is a rare misstep.

take care.

driver October 15, 2010 4:04 PM

@Louie: “And how can you be sure your mirror was not swapped out?”

Ummm, I use my car every day. I think I would notice if there was something different about my mirror… such as new or “missing” smudges, marks etc. Also, it may be aligned differently, which I would notice immediately since it wouldn’t give the proper rear-view it should.

And, if the dope installing it leaves his fingerprint on it, and that print has a pattern different than mine, that would be a big clue.

cryptofan October 15, 2010 10:54 PM

it’s true, after I read this article I checked my car and found two tracking devices, front and back bumper. Also I have suspicions about my dentist.

john October 16, 2010 5:45 AM

@Imperfect Citizen

Have seen similar kinds of “harassment”..the “FBI” runs some of these weird groups..purpose? To get a reaction? Intimidate?

With all the stalker groups and privatized security/surveillance…who knows.

The “cops” can enter your vehicle when it is on any business property with their permission…a mechanic would be sworn to secrecy if any modification was made to your car.

You can stalk stalkers. See the patterns.

The Stasi had much limited technology. They don’t need to kill you to ruin your life.

George October 17, 2010 1:55 PM

Seems pretty straightforward to me, he got on a list because of his father, nationality, other factors like his age group, etc. Based on priorities, it wasn’t important enough to warrant a current model, so he got the “retro-fit.” Hardy har har. At least they’re trying to allocate resources based on priority.

Blog posts didn’t enter into it until he posted the photos. Here’s the part I don’t get – if you’re an intelligence agency, you need to expect that the moment you place a bug, it’s gone forever. If you get it back, wonderful, but consider it gone already. The last thing I would do is show up and ask for back, you look stupid and have limited ability to actually get said device back without going through a lot of steps that expose your activities in court should they install it on the car of someone like me.

If it had been me, I wouldn’t have given it back, and I’d have asked the ACLU to help protect me. Of course, I wouldn’t actually talk to any law enforcement without written immunity either.

Lastly, am I the only one laughing when I catch a few minutes of some cheesy TV show where agents have modern tools like PC tablets? Reality is that the FBI still works cases using a mixture of paper and really old mainframe dbs. There’s a reason that the FBI is so eager to help Hollywood produce shows about the FBI, it’s the best PR tool in the world. The fact that FBI investigation technology is about 30-40 years behind the technology curve isn’t known to the general public.

BF Skinner October 18, 2010 6:53 AM

@Clive Robinson “True but how about other genre such as “silent movies” such as the Keystone Cops?”

Not a big Max Sennet fan I watched a lot more Fritz Lang.

My god man you did THAT tome with your thumbs on a phone? Just how many thumbs do you have…that’s the real reason you’re going to hospital (sides the good food) isn’t it? You’re getting new thumbs attached.

John October 18, 2010 8:29 AM

Sounds like the guy was commenting on Season 3 of 24. Hard to believe that would trigger the FBI’s attention. You should read some of the comments people make on Steve Jackson’s GURPS forums when they ask about nukes in space or detonating them underground. One person even commented if The Crystal Palace would be alerted to such & such comments. lol.

No One October 18, 2010 1:54 PM


  1. Assuming their intent is to replace your mirror they might take the precaution of trying to make it be back in its original position.
  2. Assuming their intent is to replace your mirror they might take the precaution of not putting their own fingerprints on it, maybe even wearing gloves.
  3. How many times have you entered the car and because of posture your mirror was slightly off? How many times have you entered the car and bumped the mirror with your head. More than once for me — more like once a month I readjust my mirror.

I think you’re overestimating your and in general, the average person’s ability to notice small changes to the environment. Have you taken the count-the-number-of-passes-of-a-basketball-by-they-white-shirted-team test?

Clive Robinson October 18, 2010 4:39 PM

@ BF Skinner,

“That’s the real reason you’re going to hospital (sides the good food) isn’t it? You’re getting new thumbs attached”

Good food !!! good god man what sort of hospitals do you dream about?

I had the misfortune to be admitted as an emergancy case to an NHs hospital in South London that had “outsourced catering” to a company called ISS Mediclean.

Well not only did ISS Mediclean not manage to have the contractually required “two vegtables” available the one vegatable they served me was “frozen peas” and guess what they had managed to burn them black…

Well I complained to PAL’s (Patient Advice and Liason) and you should have seen the claptrap that came back from the ISS Mediclean catering manager over how they had managed that feet of near imposability (try it at home if you want to find out just how difficult it is).

I was going to pursue it but a week later the Police raded the hospital and arressted three of the ISS managers and deported something like half of the illegal immigrant ISS Mediclean staff, so there did not seem to be a lot of point persuing it after that.

BF Skinner October 19, 2010 6:45 AM

@Clive “ISS Mediclean”
Heh heh heh. Sounds like a cleaning recyclign service. Turn all the waste back into food.

One base I was assigned to in NY had contracted out it’s galley to local private enterprise rather than use the service’s own cooks.

It was notoriously bad and the enlisted spent their own money in the city rather than eat there. The manager was very upfront to the COTR. “For what we bid and you awarded this is the best that can be done.” Read “We bid this contract so low to win, and you accepted it and we profit by serving your sailors crap; what are you going to do fire us?”

They did actually for the last year that base was in operation. They put service cooks not civilians to work and the base officers made a point of going there everyday for lunch. Food improved until the officers STOPPED going. When they closed the base and transfered everyone to the new base there was no galley just a big common kitchen. Fortunately there was a hooters right out side the base gate.

bob (the original bob) October 19, 2010 7:27 AM

@BF Skinner, Clive: I think ISS Mediclean would be a UN-run hospital ship (which would cost 20x as much to run as a competing commercial enterprise, but that’s another post).

wither October 19, 2010 10:29 AM

I would assume, then, that no permission is required to attach a device like this to a police vehicle…

jacob October 19, 2010 10:43 AM

Just a thought. What if he had called in that he had a pipe bomb on his car? Would the FBI have responded along with local LEOs? That could be embarrassing. They might even blow up the FBI’s GPS just for good measure. Now that would be funny!!!Damn now I have to check my car, again. 😉

Clive Robinson October 19, 2010 2:25 PM

@ BF Skinner,

I do not know of this “Hooters” of whom you speak so highly, I trust she is a respectable business woman?

@ Bob (the original Bob),

Yes ISS could amongst other things stand for International Steam Ship, My personal choice of meaning is how shall I put it delicately “not sutable for publication” you could assume that one of the S’s coresponds to a four letter word for a digestive byproduct…

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