Microwave Spying — Leon Theremin & “The Thing”

“Theremin did some of his best scientific work while imprisoned by one of the most repressive regimes of the 20th century. This brilliant scientist crossed path with the CIA more than once — to our detriment.”

Benjamin R. Fisher — CIA History staff

“History certainly isn’t averse to irony. Seventy-plus years later, descendents of a device invented by the Soviet Union to eavesdrop on its Western enemies are being flogged in an internal catalog of a U.S. intelligence organization.”

Maurits Martijn — The Correspondent (December 2015)

Clara Rockmore & Leon Theremin. Rockmore was a classical violin prodigy and a virtuoso performer of the “Theremin”, the grandfather of all electronic musical instruments.

Once upon a time, the Russians relied for many years on a technology unknown to the Americans to spy on the US ambassador in Moscow. The device — known as “The thing” — was the brainchild of an extraordinary genius: Leon Theremin.

I have long suspected that “Microwave Spying” is still a tool on the shelf of the modern spies. In the aftermath of Snowden’s revelations, Der Spiegel published a catalog of surveillance technologies used by the NSA and CIA to eavesdrop on foreign spies and diplomats.

And indeed, these documents show that the U.S. Intelligence is using products — with names like LOUDAUTO and ANGRYNEIGHBOR — against foreign embassies. Those products are generally considered as direct successors of Leon Theremin’s brilliant invention. Follow us on Twitter: @INTEL_TODAY

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Lev Sergeyevich Termen (27 August 1896 – 3 November 1993), or Léon Theremin in the United States, was a Russian and Soviet inventor, most famous for his invention of the theremin, one of the first electronic musical instruments and the first to be mass-produced. He also devised the interlace technique for improving the quality of a video signal, still widely used in video and television technology.

His listening device, “The Thing”, hung for seven years in plain view in the United States Ambassador’s Moscow office and enabled Soviet agents to eavesdrop on secret conversations. [Wikipedia]

The Thing, also known as the Great Seal bug, was one of the first covert listening devices (or “bugs”) to use passive techniques to transmit an audio signal. It was concealed inside a gift given by the Soviets to the US Ambassador to Moscow on August 4, 1945.

Because it was passive, being energized and activated by electromagnetic energy from an outside source, it is considered a predecessor of RFID technology.

The Great Seal bug hung in the ambassador’s residential office in Moscow and intercepted confidential conversations there during the first seven years of the Cold War, until it was accidentally discovered in 1952.

Operating principles

The Thing consisted of a tiny capacitive membrane connected to a small quarter-wavelength antenna; it had no power supply or active electronic components.

The device, a passive cavity resonator, became active only when a radio signal of the correct frequency was sent to the device from an external transmitter.

This is currently referred in NSA parlance as “illuminating” a passive device. Sound waves (from voices inside the ambassador’s office) passed through the thin wood case, striking the membrane and causing it to vibrate.

The movement of the membrane varied the capacitance “seen” by the antenna, which in turn modulated the radio waves that struck and were re-transmitted by the Thing.

A receiver demodulated the signal so that sound picked up by the microphone could be heard, just as an ordinary radio receiver demodulates radio signals and outputs sound.

The Great Seal Bug: A Story of Cold War Espionage

It was 1945 and the U.S. and the Soviet Union had at best a tenuous relationship. What was presented as a peaceful and friendly gift turned out to be anything but a gesture of good will.

Soviets gave the U.S. ambassador to the U.S.S.R. a carving of The Great Seal, yet hidden inside, just below the surface, was a listening device that went undetected for years.

The bug was activated only when the Soviets wanted, and they made themselves privy to the most secret conversations within those American walls.

It wasn’t until 1952 that it was discovered, but the U.S. kept the findings under wraps in order to use the technology for their own espionage endeavors. The story was filed away for eight years. Until, the U.S. was caught in the act.

REFERENCES

Leon Theremin – CIA NEMESIS — CIA official website

White House faces criticism over Russian photographer in Oval Office — Guardian

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Microwave Spying — Leon Theremin & “The Thing”

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