Are You Being Spied on in Your Hotel Room? Here’s How to Check

The number one thing that gives me security when I travel is obscurity, there’s no one who wants to spy on me. I’m simply not important or valuable enough to be worth the effort.

At the same time I assume any device I carry with me to China is compromised. And in many countries the room I’m staying in may be set up for monitoring because of other people who might stay there either before or after me. Business espionage is at least as common as national security espionage.

Furthermore there are plenty of stories of rogue hotel employees installing video monitoring in some hotel rooms, they very much aren’t trying to see me naked but they’re probably hoping to see other people naked – again either before or after me.

According to the President of Spy Associates, your greatest risk is in China, Russia, Israel, “or even the U.K.”

Here’s how devices are obscured,

A bugging device in a hotel is not easy to spot as they are often concealed inside everyday items (smoke detectors, fire alarms, clock radios, landline phones, docking stations, speakers, and even behind power outlets, air-conditioning vents, or ceiling lights) ..It’s typically a tiny little computer board and may have little wires. I’ve seen some the size of a quarter.

    Copyright: kenishirotie / 123RF Stock Photo

Here are tell tale signs that a device has been installed,

  • “Check if any plaster (white powder) is laying near wall or vanity areas .. These areas could be pinholes installed in walls from a neighboring room or ceiling vents.”

  • “[L]ook for ordinary objects that may have a stripped screw or an unusual placement, unusual static or sounds coming from the hotel phone, or discolorations on the walls such as new paint or plaster.”

  • Places to look are “around the living room, bathroom, under the desk, and bed.” It seems to be – unmentioned in the piece – is that ceiling vents would be ideal places to hide monitoring devices.

Credit: Hilton

If you suspect you’re being bugged the spy shop owner suggests picking up “a cheap voltage meter, which detects for unstable energy use… And if you remove wall plates, you can spot listening devices.” Of course the more sophisticated devices require more expensive equipment to detect. It seems easier to just change hotel rooms, or hotels.

And just because there isn’t a bug inside your room doesn’t mean someone can’t be listening. In DC I’ve been in plenty of conference rooms that have special glass to prevent listening devices aimed at the building. You might even hire an expert to sweep your room, but a local expert that you don’t have a pre-existing relationship with may be compromised.

Basic security procedures include ProtonMail for e-mail, covering up your laptop’s camera when you’re not using it, and removing your cell phone battery. Avoid public and hotel wi-fi, keep your calls under 30 seconds using a burner.

I don’t take all of these precautions of course because I’m just not that interesting, and the US government is already intercepting my internet traffic and texts, tracking my cell phone geolocation data, and watching my car’s movements via traffic and other cameras so they know when I go to the doctor and which ones. I remember watching The Lives of Others a dozen years ago about the monitoring of East Berliners by the Stasi, not realizing at the time that’s exactly what happens now in the U.S.

(HT: Jennifer Billock)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. cameras with ir light source easy to spot, scan your room with your cell phone camera, they are sensitive to ir

  2. Gary, much better post than someone else’s at least you went into logical explanation instead of ” fear ” and I agree if someone wants to see me naked so be it

    X2 on Mike Murphy’s comment

  3. i just had to read this… traveling around as a backpacker i sleep in hostels most of the time and me checking in a private room means I want some privacy when I get tired of sleeping in dorms. You know sometimes you just wanna feel at home and just walk around comfortable in your own skin. Thanks for these advise at least now I know what to check if i feel that I am being watched.

  4. Don’t forget listening in on your cell microphone, Echo, etc. Watching you from your connected security cameras, knowing your patterns and what temperature you like from your smart thermostat, knowing exactly what you buy from credit cards, rewards memberships, your health records of course, credit score, thermal camera that see through your walls, all your computer and internet usage and on and on. We are all on the Truman Show and it is all potentially being archived so that you can be charged in the future for crimes that were not crimes in the past. For example lots of people are being charged for sexual harassment (Tom Brokaw style, not Bill Cosby style which was illegal even then) now for actions 40 years ago when it was socially not viewed as a big deal back 50 years ago.

  5. Fully updated computers and phones shouldn’t be immediately compromised when visiting China if they remain in your possession at all times (no, the hotel safe doesn’t count) and you use a trusted VPN. Trusted meaning you know the actual network you’re tunneling to (perhaps your business or your own home network- commercial VPN services can be compromised by nation-states.) This should be fine for all but the highest level espionage targets.

    Now, they can throttle or otherwise disrupt VPN connections to encourage you to stop using the VPN. And be extremely wary if you get certificate errors in your web browser! Do not attempt to continue to that site!

    And yes, any telephone call is probably monitored by multiple countries.

  6. And oh yeah, if the hotel comes with a free cell phone, I immediately power it down, wrap it in a towel for sound dampening and stick in in a drawer.

    Even if it’s an iPad set to lock out the shut down feature, you can still kick it to DFU mode if you know how. Looking at you, Park Hyatt New York…

  7. I think Gary nailed it with the premise “Who’d bother?”

    There are times I’ve worked on important stuff and I’ve been exceedingly cautious at those times. Most of the time, the most compromisable thing I ever do is use a credit card.

    Truth is, unless you’re important, engaged in criminality, have a body people want to see naked, are plotting revolution, or are up to hiking, your risk is pretty low.

  8. LOL, you guys are giving the government way too much credit. Yes, certain agencies probably COULD do all of those things if they really wanted to and tried hard enough, but for 99.9999% of people they wouldn’t have any reason to. The vast majority of the government is hugely incompetent and would never be able to accomplish this. Private sector companies, however, are probably doing this to virtually everyone on a regular (as facebook has clearly demonstrated). I’d be 100x more worried about how Facebook/Amazon/Google/Palantir spies on me vs. the federal government actually spying on me. As far as actual government “spying” goes, unless you are an extremely important person or high level person in some government/agency/company, the most you probably have to be concerned about is how Palantir collects information on you (much like Facebook) and then sells it to local police agencies (such as the LAPD) who then use that information to actually implement law enforcement decisions, like who to follow/pull-over/question/watchlist, etc… much scarier, IMO… read about it Palantir and be prepared to get really pissed off.

  9. @tom: You don’t know what you don’t know. Guessing doesn’t count.
    This is why I destroy my computer after every search and use a different email address for every email. Yeah, it gets expensive, but you can never be too safe.

    (I also wear 3 condoms )

  10. @losingtrader I hope you are using a magnet and a drill on your computer hard drives after securely wiping them with at least 50 passes and removing them from the computer prior to destruction. Definitely better to play it safe and destroy the computer and hard drive after each search or each Facebook login. I only destroy mine once a week but maybe I should up my game, you can never be too careful these days.

  11. What I do is nobody’s business, whether someone else thinks it is or not. An ice pick to the eyeball is a powerful deterrent to those who want to intrude.

  12. Wikipedia likes to spy, too. There have been rare complaints that they hack into your computer. More commonly, it’s just tracking your IP so they can claim you are a “sock”.

  13. Get real, spying in Israel is not likely. I do assume they monitor communications but not your room.

  14. LOL, who is old enough to remember when Air France was caught bugging the seats in First Class where the stewards were also employees of the security service? The target was industrial espionage.

  15. Enroute to China now thanks for the healthy dose of paranoia. I already sweep my rooms in China as is, since the country just lends itself to that paranoia. I’m sure they have records on me in Moscow because the Russian government is hardly subtle in their tracking.

  16. @Tom, have you heard of the Utah Data Center run by the NSA? Completed in 2014 at a cost of $1.5 billion the center is alleged to be able to process “all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Internet searches, as well as all types of personal data trails — parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital ‘pocket litter’. per Wikipedia. It requires 65 Megawatts of electricity and near term storage capacity of 3 and 12 EXABYTES. To put it in context all of Google in all of its data centers is estimated to have around 15 Exabytes of storage. The NSA has almost that much in ONE data center. They are not using all that storage to track a few terrorists. That level of storage means they are hoovering up and storing ALL DATA.

    Now is anyone looking at all that data? Probably not, it is possible that some algorithms are reviewing but it would be clearly impossible for people to look at that much data. But it IS there, it IS archived and if the Eye of Sauron shines on you any government agent can retrieve it all. One of the mottos of the NSA is “Nothing is beyond our reach” with a giant octopus on top of the earth.

  17. It is the world we live in. Not much you can do about it unless you are wealthy enough to hire experts. I remember when I was young in the 50’s and 60’s. We used to joke about how repressive Russia was. You had to have papers to travel. If you are not as old as I am, you may not know you needed no ID of any sort to get on an airplane in those days. Only a ticket. As easy as getting into a cab (so far) today. Now we lead the life Russians did 50 or 60 years ago. And people say we live in a free country.

  18. @Mike…or unless you are so poor you don’t have phones, computers, cell phones, cars, Echo dots, ring door bells, security systems, etc…even the “poor” in much of America, as in people living in public housing, receiving food stamps, medicaid, etc. are given “free” cell phones and both Amazon and Google just had promos where you got a free Echo Dot and Google Mini for the “free” trial…you can sign up for a free month, get your device then cancel…they want you to have the devices…as in EVERY HOME IN AMERICA to have them. There is free wifi everywhere from McDonalds to Burger King and everywhere in between…the only place you can’t get a signal is when you need one 🙂 like to double check a price in Walmart. You cannot even apply for many government services anymore without internet access, someone told me they have to apply for unemployment online now and cannot do it in person. Are they spying? Absolutely, but the “they” is corporate America, government and anyone who wants to anymore. Everyone I know has routinely had to cancel credit cards (I’ve had them stolen while literally locked in the safe!) because someone used the numbers and I got an alert from issuer who always seems unconcerned. I think unless you’re a government employee or much more important than most of us I’m with Gary, what do they want to spy on me for? Sure, CVS can get me for having too many store cards so I get more than one shopping deal but other than that I’m pretty sure they’d die of boredom listening to my tapes.

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