Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Tuesday 14/9/2004It's not often that radio technology has a direct effect on national politics. Today is different.

Tuesday 14/9/2004
It's not often that radio technology has a direct effect on national politics. Today is different. Yet more talks in Northern Ireland are due, and Sinn Fein decides to underline Albion's perfidy by showing off a bugging device found in one of their offices. Shocking stuff, says Gerry Adams, that the security service of the UK should so besmirch the political process.

I'm not au fait with the nuances of ethical behaviour in the province, so I'll leave the sense of outrage to those best practiced in the art. However, I do have a certain faculty with radio technology -- and the device being paraded is remarkable. About the size of a 1960s walkie-talkie, it comes complete with an imperial yard of batteries and two fat antennas on top. It would have been laughed off the set of a Bond movie thirty years ago: it does not look like anything a self-respecting spy would be caught using in 2004.

The two antennas are particularly interesting. They were standard accessories for Pye brand two-way radios in the 1970s, which either means the device is considerably ancient or that Q has a perverse fondness for classic wireless. They're different lengths, which indicates that the "bug" is really a repeater -- it picks up signals on one band and retransmits them on another, in this case probably receiving transmissions from local low-power microphones on UHF and sending them a greater distance on VHF.

But if you're going to do that, you don't have to put the repeater into the house that's under surveillance. You can slap it in a lamp-post nearby, where there's lots of power (so no huge chains of batteries) and nobody'll find it. And what was it with the batteries? Couldn't they tap into the mains?

The whole business is bizarre. If you're going to put an enormous radio transmitter into a place, you might as well plaster the area with posters advertising "Radio Sinn Fein -- 99.5 MHz. All Adams, All The Time". If you really want to bug someone these days, you use tiny little spread spectrum devices that are practically invisible to the eye and scanning receiver. Consider the cheapness, size and sophistication of the wireless data gear we can buy today for a few pounds: you'd better believe that MI5 (and its friends abroad) got there a long time ago.

So we have a choice: Either MI5 is grossly incompetent; or Sinn Fein has just found something that was left there from years ago; or it got found years ago and has just been wheeled out at an appropriate time; or it's an innocuous gizmo that got picked up at a ham radio car boot sale and is enjoying a new life in propaganda.

I wouldn't care to guess. But if anyone from the organisations involved would like an analytical eye cast over the "bug" internals, my questing screwdriver is at your disposal.