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Interactive video lesson plan for: How Wiretapping Works

Activity overview:

It’s surprisingly easy to listen to private conversations if you know how to hack satellites, bug devices or tap a phone line.

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Hello there BrainStuff. I’m Jonathan Strickland and I’ll be listening in on your private conversations today… What’s that? Privacy?! Ha!

But I’ll tell you what… how about I teach you how to listen in too? Without getting into all the legality, history or ethics of it, let’s look at how wiretapping works.

Now there’s many ways to tap into a phone call. I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least acknowledge that a multimillion-dollar market exists where governments pay phone companies to patch them in and record your calls. Or that it’s also possible to hack into satellites that transmit phone signals.

But since we’ve only got limited time, let’s talk about what’s called the “roving bug” method of wiretapping a mobile call.

The FBI and other intelligence agencies have made use of this technique, by remotely activating a handset’s microphone so they can eavesdrop on any conversation nearby, sometimes whether your phone is powered on or not.

All it requires is a bit of software downloaded to the device that modifies the interface displaying when a call is in progress. This “spyware” then places a call to the eavesdropper, activating the microphone without the owner ever even knowing.

The only practical way to avoid this is to routinely peel the battery out of your phone. Or you could buy a continuing supply of cheap, prepaid burner phones. Haven’t you seen “The Wire?”

Oh! But you want to know how to tap a phone the old fashioned way, by bugging a landline?

The earliest versions of this were simply extra wires connected to the line between your phone and the telephone company. The line’s circuit carries your conversation as electrical current fluctuations, representing the air-pressure of sound waves. Wiretaps convert the electrical information on the line back into sound that can be listened to or recorded.

You could even use a bug that transmits the audio information as radio waves to a nearby receiver. Y’know, the standard agent-parked-in-a-van-listening-to-headphones routine.

As with any circuit, you can hook up components anywhere along the line. It’s like adding an extra phone jack in your house. The easiest way, is to attach another phone somewhere along the line.

You do this by cutting one of the modular plugs off of a phone cord so its red and green wires are exposed. Next you attach the exposed wires to their corresponding colors at an accessible point on the outside line.

This can be anywhere along the entire length of wire, even on a clip at a junction box. Once it’s attached, just plug the cord into your phone tap and start listening!

But a few tips before you start wiretapping. First of all, it’s… y’know… illegal. Second, disable the tap’s microphone so the subject won’t hear you breathing on the other end. And, so you don’t have to wait around for someone to pick up the phone, you can use a voice-activated recorder for dictation to capture when they start talking. When the line goes dead, it’ll just turn itself off.


Mallory, S. L. (2014). Wiretaps. Salem Press Encyclopedia,

BRAVE NEW WORLD OF WIRETAPPING. By: Diffie, Whitfield, Landau, Susan, Scientific American, 00368733, Sep2008, Vol. 299, Issue 3

THE DEBATE ON WIRETAPPING. Time, 0040781X, 1/4/1954, Vol. 63, Issue 1

Tagged under: brainstuff,brain stuff,howstuffworks, stuff works,science,technology,jonathan strickland,fw thinking,techstuff,wiretapping, conversation,privacy,eavesdropping,bugging,bugs,phone calls,satellites,surveillance,security,transmitter,roving bug,mobile,smartphone,microphone,software,landline,circuit,electrical current,sound wave,radio wave,junction box,phone company,voice-activated recorder,government spying,wiretap,The Wire (TV Program)

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