California students discover ‘bug’ in their college newspaper office

Student newspaper staff members at Whittier College uncovered what may turn out to be the story of the year … in their very own office.

A routine maintenance service call last week turned up an electronic surveillance device imbedded in the office walls of the Quaker Campus, Whittier’s student newspaper. It is not known how long the bug, which was not functioning when pulled from the wall, was hidden. The device was capable of transmitting a radio signal to any receiver, tuned to the correct frequency, within a three-mile radius, editor Amy Stice said.

The discovery prompted a shared sense of disbelief and concern among the newspaper staff and the university’s administration. As this article was posted, it was not clear which university offices, if any, were investigating the matter. Whittier Police Department officials contacted by the SPLC could not find a report of the incident in their database.

The episode began last Thursday when a maintenance worker, in the newspaper office to fix a broken light, found a problem with the electrical socket. Upon taking it apart, he discovered a two-inch surveillance device soldered to the back of the socket, Stice said.

The paper alerted campus security and on Monday an electrician checked all of the other sockets in the office. No more bugs were found, but campus security called the Whittier Police Department later that day. Stice said the officers, however, were reluctant to take action.

“The Whittier Police Department came in, apparently looked at the bug and said, ‘Well there’s nothing we can do about it; yeah there’s a bug but we don’t have any evidence for this,’ ” Stice said. The officers said they did not want to file a report, she added, and that such a measure would necessitate taking custody of the device, which would probably be thrown away at a later time.

The paper decided to keep possession of the bug. Student government president Jess Craven, whose office is located in the same building as the publications room, was worried that more bugs might be hidden in the walls so he contacted a local private investigator, Thomas Barnes.

Barnes, a retired police detective and former military officer, decided to help the staff pro bono, “because they didn’t have any money,” he said.

Barnes loaned the newspaper a scanner to check the office for additional surveillance tools and he urged former Whittier mayor and current councilman Bob Alexander to “light a fire under” the local police.

“Most municipal police departments aren’t really on the learning curve when it comes to bugs, electronic surveillance, computer crime,” Barnes said. “You’re lucky, [for] the older policemen, if they can even run a computer. And if they can’t even write their own reports or run a computer, then they’re surely not going to be able to understand the implications of a bug.”

“It’s pretty serious when you start hard-wiring in because it means you have to have the opportunity to do it,” he continued. “This is not for a short-term problem, it’s [for] somebody that wants to monitor somebody for a long period of time.”

The school seems to share his concern.

“Student journalism and the free exchange of ideas is something that the institution has supported since its inception,” university spokesperson Caye Brundage said. “So we’re very concerned about anything that would inhibit the ability of our students to exchange ideas freely or that would create an atmosphere where they felt they were being inhibited.”

Barnes said he considers the school’s administration a suspect in the surveillance.

“Who would want to monitor [the newspaper] on a long-term basis?” Barnes asked rhetorically. “You start to come up with a short list of people and one of the people that usually comes up at the very top of the list is administration. It’s like a murder case; one of the first people you look at is somebody related to the murder victim.”

Brundage disagreed, “I can’t think of why I as an administrator would want to bug the office,” she said. “We are interested in knowing what the [Quaker Campus] is doing but usually we’re pretty aware of what stories are being [investigated anyway].”

Barnes and Brundage both said that the bug appeared to have been in the wall for “a long time.” Sweeps of the rest of the building turned up no additional surveillance devices.

In California, electronic eavesdropping in situations where there is an expectation of privacy and individuals are unaware of the surveillance is a felony, Barnes said.

Whittier College is the alma mater of former President Richard Nixon, who was forced to resign from office as a result of the Watergate scandal that was triggered by the bugging of Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington.

SPLC View: Wow, eh? As far as we know, this is the first confirmed bugging of a student newspaper’s newsroom in at least in the last two decades or so. The discovery of such a device is, obviously, very troubling. The act of secretly planting a hidden audio or video bug is a criminal offense in California, although finding the culprit in such cases is rare. As such listening devices become smaller, less expensive and more available, we’d be surprised if other student media didn’t also occasionally fall victim to prying eyes and ears. Unfortunately, the only way of knowing for sure that your newsroom is not bugged is to conduct regular, comprehensive