January 19, 1998
photo by Deborah Stone
Gordon Mitchell is the owner/operator of Future Focus, Inc.
by Deborah Stone
Gordon Mitchell is a bug killer. However, the "pests" that this Woodinville man pursues are not the six legged kind. Mitchell owns and operates Future Focus, Inc., Western Washington's only technology-based company specializing in the detection of illegal listening devices. But are people still using such archaic devices as phone taps and hidden microphones? "Yes," responds Mitchell. "The old-fashioned ways of stealing information are still very popular and remain a big problem to the invasion of privacy for both businesses and individuals."
Mitchell started Future Focus in 1987 after a successful career in electrical engineering and a high tech business. With his experience of many years of technical and security consulting to government agencies and corporations, he decided to start his own venture. He began at ground zero and today his company dominates the commercial side of the business in the state. Most of his work comes via referrals and the majority of clients are businesses, as opposed to individuals.
"The cut-throat competition and deal-making that exists among corporations these days can be a temptation to resort to using bugs," states Mitchell. He cites some warning signs for executives that indicate listening devices are possibly in use. These include continuous loss of bids by very small amounts, foiled acquisitions and industry rumors that fly soon after sensitive meetings. "There are physical warning signs, too," says Mitchell. "A break-in where nothing is taken, inquiries about your office space or phone system and visits from "telephone repair" people may mean your competition is listening in on your conversations."
With individuals, emotionally laden situations such as divorce may be conducive to eavesdropping. In one case Mitchell dealt with, a woman told him she thought she was going crazy because her soon-to-be ex-husband seemed to know everything she discussed with her lawyer. Mitchell discovered a bug in the woman's home and was able to trace its purchase to her husband. "Of course, there are a number of calls from people who are paranoid without external reason to be," comments Mitchell. The caller will say that someone's after them, but doesn't know the identity of that 'someone.' I won't take these types of jobs because I know I can't help them and it's not right to take their money." With each case, a team of two to four trained individuals is employed to inspect the premises. "Inspecting a four-office suite with multiple telephones and extensions and a separate phone room will cost $2,000-$6,000 depending on the type of threat, the system's complexity and the geographic location," explains Mitchell.
Various types of modern, high cost sweep equipment are used to detect such bugs as radio transmitters, phone taps, optical links and microphones on the power line. "Please understand that we aren't people who use magic in what we do, just easy to understand technology," says Mitchell. Inspectors physically examine crawl spaces, adjoining room walls, drop ceilings, ducting, furniture, fixtures, appliances, books, office equipment and art objects. The team will initially enter the offices during the day, under other auspices, to check for radio signals transmitting from the area.
The complete inspection always occurs at night or on weekends when employees are not present. During inspections, the team must be careful not to talk about what they're doing or what they may find because if there are bugs, an eavesdropper will know what is happening. Mitchell usually draws upon a pool of licensed private investigators and people with a solid technical background to use in the teams. His daughter Adele, a high school math and science teacher in Seattle, has worked for him for quite awhile. "She's good at it and really enjoys the work," says Mitchell.
When bugs are discovered, they are preserved as evidence for the client. The client may remove them, have them examined for fingerprints, leave them in place to feed misinformation to the eavesdropper or hand them over to an attorney. It is surprising to learn that bugs are found in a relatively small number of cases. "Good professionals in this field will find something five to ten percent of the time," explains Mitchell. "However, there are those who are in the field who claim to find something more than fifty percent of the time. These are people who actually plant devices in the act of inspecting the place and then pretend to discover them."
Mitchell is well-known in his field, possessing credentials in both government and commercial security. His articles on the subject have been published in respected security journals. He views his work as a constant challenge that continues to fascinate him. He says, "The inspection is like a puzzle that I need to put together by discovering the connection of the various pieces. I'm fascinated with the ability to put it all together. The pay-off for me is solving problems for people. That's what's most rewarding."