Ecuador's Foreign Minister Ricardo Patino shows a picture of a hidden spy microphone uncovered at the office of Ana Alban, the Ecuadorean ambassador to the United Kingdom. Photo: Reuters
An Australian surveillance executive whose firm was contracted by several clients to sweep for hidden mobile interceptors and other spying devices in Australia and Asia has found dozens of them.
Les Goldsmith, chief executive of ESD Group, told Fairfax Media his company found about 20 physical bugs when conducting sweeps in Australian business and local government offices, and another 68 in Asia between 2005 and 2011.
The firm found 47 bugs in Papua New Guinea, ten in Singapore, three in the Philippines, five in Thailand, two in India and one in Fiji in several searches.
A mobile phone interceptor. Photo: ESD Group
Mr Goldsmith, who is now based in Las Vegas and sells secure mobile phones, also detected about 65 mobile phone interceptors in Asia. Mobile phone interceptors typically cost about $100,000 each and are used to listen in on mobile calls.
Mr Goldsmith wanted to come forward with the information because he was concerned only Indonesia and East Timor were highlighted in recent spying allegations.
"All governments are falling victim to surveillance and some governments are falling victim to it but not saying anything," he said.
Mr Goldsmith no longer conducts sweeps, saying he grew tired of crawling through roofs with his team and sleeping on client’s premises.
He declined to say whether Australian agencies were responsible for any of the bugs found.
"Australia might be conducting spying operations but, from what we’ve seen, many other governments are doing spying operations across Asia as well and the majority of those operations are for economic reasons, not for criminal. It’s not about national security," he said.
Devices with microphones and/or hidden cameras were usually found in power points, telephone outlets, lighting fixtures, inside doors, walls and furniture such as in couches, keyboards, computer mice, clocks and in lamps.
Two bugs found in Australia were planted in local government offices and the rest in businesses, he said. The reverse applied in Asia, where most were found in government offices. In Australia they were mainly found in premises in the mining, media and law sectors.
Mr Goldsmith’s remarks come as officers from Australia’s domestic spy agency ASIO raided the office of a lawyer who claimed spies bugged the cabinet room of East Timor’s government during negotiations over oil and gas deposits. It also follows news that Ecuador found a bug in its London embassy, where Julian Assange is staying.
Scott Ainslie, president of the Australian Institute of Professional Intelligence Officers and a former combat and counter intelligence officer at the Australian Defence Force, once worked as a reseller for Mr Goldsmith’s company and said he believed ESD’s figures. He said Australians had a naive attitude towards bugging.
"We often overlook those aspects of what was once referred to as industrial espionage and we assume that people don’t engage in that activity. That’s a false assumption. Whilst it’s not legal, that doesn’t prevent people from engaging in those activities," he said.
Mr Ainslie had "witnessed more than enough evidence" of bugging occurring in Australian companies.
Michael Dever, of Dever Clark + Associates, which conducts bug sweeps for government agencies, said Mr Goldsmith’s numbers were not surprising.
"Australia’s culture is pretty naive about these matters," Mr Dever said. "There’s a prevailing attitude ... among businesses that this is Australia, that this sort of stuff only happens elsewhere. But that’s not the case at all."
Despite this, Mr Dever revealed that his firm had not found any bugs in Australia "in years", but said that this was likely because areas he swept were "generally secure" government or private sector facilities.
"That doesn’t mean that we’re incompetent," Mr Dever said.
"It just means that the types of places [where] we do this work ... are already low-risk anyway because of their security."