“Can we meet me at your house—tonight?” Terry [not his real name] asks. He doesn’t want to say much on the phone.
“Sure,” I reply.
“Can you meet me in the driveway? And . . .” He hesitates. “Can you leave your phone inside the house?” Terry is a very polite guy. By the tone of the brief conversation, I already know he’s going to talk to me about my computer incidents.
I finish my tae kwon do workout and get home just in time for the driveway rendezvous. I sit on the brick stoop in front of my house and wait, still damp with martial arts sweat. It’s humid and warm and starting to get dark. Terry pulls into the driveway, hops out, and joins me on the stoop. He’s carrying a Baggie and a folder.
“I know what’s been happening to you,” he says with genuine concern. “If there’s anything I can do to help, I want to.”
Terry, like so many in this region, has connections to the three- letter agencies. He tells me in quiet tones that he’s angry at the thought of the government conducting covert surveillance on law-abiding pri- vate citizens and journalists.
“I’ve spent my whole career developing and using techniques that are meant to be used on terrorists and bad guys. Not people like you.” He opens the Baggie and shows me an array of bugging devices of different sizes and shapes. He pulls them out one at a time and explains how each one could be disguised to fit into a different host. I don’t think anyone is using bugs in my house. But I remind myself that not long ago, I didn’t think anybody would break into my com- puters. In any event, Terry is giving me a crash course: Spy Class 101. He looks around. Up the driveway. Both sides and across the street. “Let’s take a walk.”
Terry tells me of a conversation he’d had with my husband back in 2011. He’d noticed a white utility truck parked up the street by a pond.
“I didn’t like that. I didn’t like it at all,” he tells me now, shaking his head. “I talked to your husband about it at the time. He’d already noticed the truck, too.
“I didn’t like it because I recognized the type of truck and the type of antennae it had. And if you look”—he points up the street—“there’s a direct line of sight from where it was parked to your house.” My husband, who once worked in law enforcement intelligence, had on several occasions in the past couple of years mentioned the presence of nondescript utility trucks parked in our neighborhood—trucks that were working on no known utility projects. Neighbors noticed, too. Ours is a small community filled with people who pay attention to such things. Some of them worked for the three-letter agencies.
For more than an hour, Terry tells me fantastical stories of in- credible covert capabilities the government has. I think about James Bond getting briefings on secret gadgets from Q Division. Terry says there’s a way to shoot an arrow from a distance into the outside of a building and have it penetrate through the outer wall, just far enough to stop short of the drywall, where it plants a listening device. Or the government may find out you’re attending a professional conference and plant spyware on every CD to be given out at the event, in hopes that you’ll take one and insert it into your computer. Or they find out when you’re taking your car in to be serviced and arrange to install transmitters in your taillights.
“That’s sort of like the antennae. Then an audio receptor can be placed inside your car. That way they know where you are and when you’re coming home.”
Terry tells me about the government’s secretive departments of Flaps & Seals. They specialize in—well—flaps and seals. For example, they intercept something you’ve ordered in the mail, and open the “flaps” and break the “seals” to outfit the product with a bug or malware. Then they reseal the flaps and seals so expertly that you can’t tell anyone has been in the package. When it arrives at your house, you install the software or attach the device to your computer and voilà! You’ve bugged yourself. Simple and clever.
Terry tells me that the government’s technical surveillance tools are limitless. Wide domestic use of drones has opened a whole new world of possibilities. A small drone with a camera can easily hover quietly above my house for forty-five minutes while it uploads data or downloads software.
“And then there are lightbulbs,” Terry says. “Your audio can be monitored through lightbulbs. Lamps. Clock radios. Outdoor lights.”
The lightbulbs have ears?
“How can a lightbulb emit a signal?” I ask. “If it’s transmitting, can that be detected?”
“It doesn’t use a transmitter,” Terry explains. “It operates off the electrical current in your house. It’s called electric current technology.”
That blows my mind.
“The names of the people who are executing surveillance on you won’t be found in a criminal database,” Terry tells me. “More likely they’re in Scattered Castles.”
He explains that Scattered Castles is a database used across all components of the intelligence community that verifies personnel security access to Sensitive Compartmented Information and other caveated programs.
This is all fascinating but a little academic. And in a way, some of it sounds so 1990s. From what I’ve learned, it seems the government and its operatives don’t need to go to these extraordinary lengths to track and monitor people. We’re all so wired through the Internet and our smartphones: that’s all they really need.
[hr]Read excerpt #1 here: The Computer Intrusions: Up at Night
#12: Obama’s War on Leaks
#16: URGENT dispatch
#23: The CBS Connection
#24: Spy Class 101