Before we get started, you should know I am not pushing my own bug sweeping services. I do not sell my services commercially. I have 15 years of experience in technical surveillance countermeasures (TSCM) and am often called upon to give advice regarding many aspects of this profession. I gain nothing from this article other than to educate you, the commercial consumer. I know what makes a proficient team but I am addressing 3 things top rated teams should have no problems explaining to a customer. The 4th topic, pricing, is a topic I here good teams always comment about. I hope this is helpful to some business or person hoping to employ a bug sweeping team.
What Makes a Good Team?
Choosing a legitimate, proficient bug sweep (aka TSCM) team can be a bit of a task. The need for these teams is real. There are countless examples of bad guys leveraging modern technology to extract information out of sensitive areas. Unfortunately, there is no certifying body that can guarantee the skill of any particular team. There is no regulatory council to let a customer know that a team has been trained to any particular level of accomplishment. To complicate matters, a successful sweep may not find anything. This can give you piece of mind but unless you know what a good team looks like, you will never know if the negative result was due to your tight physical security or to a team’s ineptitude.
Recently I have had several colleagues from the commercial sector contact me regarding employing TSCM teams. It’s difficult to hire anyone if you aren’t sure what the product is supposed to look like, but here are some things to keep in mind.
Realistic Expectations and Limitations
No single TSCM team can check everything. There are limitations in a team’s equipment, expertise, and tolerance for risk. For instance, if the team gets an indicator from a 200 year old painting in your office, do they have the ability, expertise, handling skill, or the stomach to thoroughly examine the target? If you own a 60 inch, flat screen TV, will the team open it up and have a look around? As far as equipment, what exactly can their equipment see or what might slip past? It’s important to establish these limitations so you as a customer know the product you are getting.
In addition, if you are imposing a time restraint on the team, ask what can be done in the time given. For example, if you ask a small team to do a thorough examination of a reasonably sized conference room in an hour, expect that team to tell you that they cannot accomplish much in the time given. This time restraint is a severe limitation that will greatly impact a team’s ability to give you a meaningful sweep. If they say that they can do it without any qualification, be wary.
Ensure Proper Work
I get a chuckle every time I watch a YouTube video or view a LinkedIn picture of TSCM personnel prancing around with their equipment while wearing khakis and a collared shirt. I laugh because I know what it takes to find devices and what it takes to implant them. I have been on both ends of the spectrum. I live the latter daily through my current participation in red team activities. I get filthy. If I’m getting filthy putting stuff in, the TSCM operator will have to get dirty to find it.
I’ve evaluated hundreds of bug sweep teams and the most successful are not the ones with the latest and greatest equipment, but the ones that are tenacious and results driven. These teams go the extra mile to validate every possible avenue of attack. They usually walk away from a days work with a bit of ceiling tile dust in their hair, scrapped knuckles, and a dirty jumpsuit.
Don’t get me wrong, teams can still find devices and come out looking clean as a whistle, but I doubt they’ll ever find the deep, quality implanted devices.
Prepared for the Worst
Every TSCM job I ever went on started with a conversation with the customer. In that conversation was the uncomfortable discussion of what would happen WHEN we broke something. It will happen. I’ve opened appliances only to have 30 year old plastic turn to pieces in my fingers. Fortunately I already had that uncomfortable discussion and I was able to make amends due to a pre-existing agreement with the client.
A bug sweep team worth its salt will have this discussion with you. In order for a team to be thorough, a team needs to go deep. Common things that break are network plugs, stripped out power outlets, and ceiling tiles. If you do not have this conversation one of two things will happen: 1) Nothing will be broken because no one will look deep enough to break anything or 2) Some things may be broken and you will be angry for not being warned.
Pricing & Time
If the rate quoted to you seems to good to be true, it probably is. A good bug sweep takes longer than you think, uses expensive equipment, and usually costs a bit more than anticipated. The following example actually happened to a colleague.
My colleague was bidding on a TSCM job to perform the service for Company XYZ. XYZ wanted 30,000 sq ft of space checked. My colleague put in a quote and was shortly called back by XYZ and was told that another TSCM firm would do it for less than 1/2 of their quote in 1/2 the time. My colleague and his team were all government trained with multiple years of experience and relayed to the client that no one could reasonably finish in the amount of time quoted. The client went with the lower price.
Not only was the time frame quoted unreasonable, it was impossible to accomplish anything meaningful. If you want to find a TSCM team that will do the job in very little time, you will most assuredly find one. You will not be protected, but you’ll find one.
As when hiring any professional, get references and follow up on those references. This is an expensive service so make sure you are getting what you need. If you are hiring for a long term service, you might even hire someone else just to verify the work of the first or hire several teams to sweep the same room and to find out which is more thorough.
There are many more characteristics that make a decent team, but hopefully these few thoughts will set you in the right direction.