Yes, Your Chinese Hotel Room Is Probably Bugged
So says a security expert, who notes that anything with speakers — the TV, radio and landlines — can be tapped.
Cross-border partnerships are bringing entertainment executives from Hollywood and China in closer contact than ever before — but, given the country's rich history of corporate espionage, you may want to take precautions before having private conversations in your Beijing hotel room.
"You just have to assume the room is bugged," says physical security consultant Roger Johnston. "I wouldn't have any kind of confidential conversation in a hotel."
Johnston spent more than 30 years working for two U.S. government laboratories as a vulnerability assessor before entering semi-retirement to consult.
Bugs, he says, can be incredibly tiny, look like just about anything and don't always send radio-frequency signals. So in countries like China, Russia and Israel it's safer to just assume you're being listened to.
"Unlike the movies, bugs don't have blinking red lights to tell you you're being watched," says Johnston. "They can be very difficult to spot, even if you're an expert and you know what you're looking for."
And hiring someone to sweep your room would likely be a waste of money.
"It's an enormous problem if you have fabulous resources and you own the room or the building it's in," he says. "When traveling to China, even if you have a team of experts who can rip a hotel room apart, there's no guarantee."
Whether a hired expert would be able to find a bug also depends on who's doing the bugging. "If it's the Chinese government, they're not going to find them," Johnston says. "If it's amateurs, a competitor for example, it's possible. The problem is: If they don't find anything, that's no guarantee there's no bug."
To complicate matters further, a potential spy doesn't even have to hide a bug in your room to listen in. All speakers are also microphones, Johnston says, so your TV, radio and landline phone can all be tapped without an extra mic. It doesn't end there, though.
"The water in the toilet bowl is not a bad acoustic resonator," Johnston says. "So someone can tap into the plumbing and listen, to a certain extent."
Even a glass held to the wall from the room next door can be effective, he says, especially if whoever is listening has thinned the wall.
If you have to share confidential information from your room, Johnston does have some advice — don't discuss it verbally. He recommends downloading an app that will encrypt your text messages. The iMessage app on Apple products is quite good, he says, and so is Knox for Samsung devices. Assuming your phone hasn't already been hacked, and you sit someplace where your screen can't be filmed, Johnston says those apps should keep your messages private — even if your room has been bugged. "I wouldn't sit in the middle of the room, or an obvious place like a desk," he says. "I'd sit on the floor with my back to the wall."
"Both at home and on the road, you should put Post-its over your video cameras until you need to use them," Johnston says. When you do open your laptop or pick up your iPhone to Skype someone back home, make sure there's nothing you wouldn't want to share visible in the background.
The same rules apply for meeting spaces.
"Don't meet in a conference room in a hotel that Westerners go to a lot," Johnston says. "Don't reserve it three weeks in advance in the name of your company. You're just asking for it."
He says a better plan would be having a local you trust reserve a room in a restaurant or hotel that Westerners don't go to in his or her name, so your name and your company's name aren't associated with the reservation.
One last note: Taking calls on the road is standard Hollywood procedure, but Johnston says it's important to realize vehicles aren't any more private than hotel rooms: "Avoid rental cars, and don't have confidential discussions in taxis."
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.