The miniature microphone, as worn by an undercover officer or an informant, is the single most unreliable piece of technology of all time. They are prone to shorting out, smoking and sparking, bad reception and easy detection - but strangely, they are immune to clothing noise, although this is the primary handicap of their real-world counterparts.
The bad guys will always discover the microphone itself, never the much bulkier transmitter to which it is connected (usually about half the size of a box of cigarettes). Invariably, it is secured to the body using large swathes of white bandage, rather than the small piece of transparent tape used by film professionals. On the other hand, budgetary limitations often result in real police forces using surprisingly antiquated technology.
As a variant, a parabolic dish device operated by a technician at a distance is used to listen in on criminal conversations.
Routinely results in the perpetrator being Caught on Tape.
The application of the wire on the subject's body is often used for Fanservice (giving an excuse to show a shirtless man or woman) or Fan Disservice (if the focus is on how uncomfortable it is to have electronics taped to your body).
- Angel Cop: Taki has a tape recorder inside a false cigarette box. He also bugs the villain via a microphone hidden inside a cigarette that he had left in the ash tray.
- Cowboy Bebop: Jet is trying to get some intel from an office and is told he cannot smoke in the office. He puts out the bugged cigarette in a potted plant. He later listens in on a conversation from the office.
- Parodied in the Starsky & Hutch movie, when Huggy Bear goes undercover wearing a wire, consisting of a full size microphone and a huge antenna under his shirt.
- The detectives in Se7en shave their chests so they can tape wires to their skin, prompting one of them to wonder if a shaved-off nipple would get treated as a work-related injury.
- The film We Own The Night strained credulity with a bug and transmitter small enough to fit inside a functional cigarette lighter... in the early 1980s. Apparently, the NYPD is keeping all the good stuff for themselves.
- In Oliver Stone's Wall Street, Bud Fox used a hidden wire during his final confrontation with Gordon Gekko, in a successful attempt to provoke Gekko into confessing his complicity in Fox's insider trading and Gekko's own criminal behavior.
- The Conversation plays this completely straight and to its fullest. The plot centers around a discussion two people have as they walk through a park—without realizing they're being recorded by hidden and long-range parabolic microphones.
- A variation occurred in the movie Singin' in the Rain that lampshaded the worst parts of hidden microphones. While making their first 'talking movie', their lead actress had trouble being heard. First, the microphone was hidden in a plant, and she couldn't be heard because she "couldn't make love to a bush!" Then, it was placed in a poof of her sleeve on her left shoulder. Of course, when she turned her head to say "No, I cannot love you", she faded out and back in. Then, they put the microphone in a giant brooch on her chest and got a nice background of her heartbeat.
- True Romance (1993). The battery pack for the wire worn by Elliot drops down into his underpants, and he keeps trying to push it back up again. Fortunately no-one notices.
- In Carlito's Way, Lalin (Viggo Mortensen) wears a hidden wire under his shirt while speaking to Carlito (Al Pacino) at a nightclub Carlito manages. Carlito correctly guesses that Lalin is wearing the wire after just a few seconds when Lalin tries to lure him back into a life of crime.
- Played with in Infernal Affairs. When Triad boss Sam's drug deal is compromised by an undercover cop, he smashes a henchman's plaster cast on a table, but finds no wire. The henchman is an undercover cop and he did bug the meeting ... by placing the wire outside the window and tapping out Morse code.
- Parodied in Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment where Mahoney infiltrates Zed's gang with a large microphone taped to his chest that periodically receives radio signals from local sports stations. Needless to say, this gets Mahoney found out.
- In Con Air, the DEA Agent's wire is the size of a PC's hard drive (and comes with its own reel-to-reel tape). When he discovered and killed, Poe stashes it on the now Bound and Gagged guard so that he can be discovered.
- In Tango & Cash, the title characters find a dead body which is obviously wired. However, when they are put on trial for murdering the man, the recording is not used in the trial - the tape had been swapped with a second tape, which had been assembled from various sound bites of things the characters had said on other occasions, pieced together to make what appeared to be an incriminating conversation.
- The brain recorder from Strange Days was invented for this reason; one of them accidentally becomes used for this purpose when, hidden under a wig, its wearer witnesses a murder, setting the plot in motion.
- Donnie Brasco:
- Donnie refuses to remove his cowboy boots on entering a Japanese restaurant. When the owner objects his Mafia colleagues savagely beat him. It turns out that Donnie had a tape recorder inside his boot, which he later plays, listening to the sound of the innocent man being beaten.
- In the real-life book on which this is based, Donnie mentions how his friends in the mob would often search each others' belongings if they needed a few dollars, and the hazard this would create if they happened to find his Nagra recorder. Having been undercover for so long, they'd conclude Donnie had turned informant and would never believe he was just doing his job.
- Prince of the City: Det. Ciello agrees to wear a wire to gather evidence of corruption in the NYPD. On one occasion, one of his interlocutors frisks him for a wire, and Ciello mockingly suggests that he ought to check his groin, since he might have a recording device concealed in his underwear, which, of course, he does. This is to establish that Ciello has become suicidally reckless because of his guilt at informing on fellow policemen.
- In the Australian movie The Empty Beach (1985), for the climactic meeting with the villains, the police give a bug activated by a switch to Private Detective Cliff Hardy and tell him to hide it somewhere on his person. Anticipating the Obligatory Joke, the cop says if Hardy shoves it up his arse, he won't be able to flick the switch when needed.
- The Infiltrator (2016) starts with two criminals making a deal, when one of them suddenly doubles over in intense pain. Turns out he's an undercover FBI agent whose wire has just short-circuited and is burning his skin. Fortunately he has the presence of mind to convince his target it's a medical problem.
- Averted in 13 where the protagonist is forced to strip so his clothes can be searched, and they even cut off his boot heels in case there's a Tracking Device hidden in them. They're being Properly Paranoid as the police are indeed trying to shut them down, though the protagonist is not working for them.
- Blow Out. An undercover cop is exposed when his sweat shorts out the battery of the wire he's wearing, leading to his death.
- In the novel Hannibal Clarice Starling mentions during her shooting inquest that a man from another agency is wearing a wire. A FBI man threatens to punch him out if he tries that again.
- In the Florida Roadkill novel Cadillac Beach, Serge is talking to an old family friend while he is at a meeting of Cuban-Americans plotting the overthrow of Castro. At one point Serge rips open the shirt of one man in the group, revealing that he is wired, and announces that the man is a spy. Of course, the group is so thoroughly infiltrated by Cuban intelligence that the only person in the group who isn't a Cuban spy is Serge's old family friend and they all know it, but they feel morally obliged to beat up the exposed spy anyway.
- In "Clockpunk and the Vitalizer," the four superheroes outfit Dolores "Clockpunk" Garza with a covert camera to track her location and status as she negotiates with/stalls The Vitalizer. Subverted, as he unknowingly breaks it a few minutes after they meet.
- In Babylon Berlin, Gereon manages to get Councilman Wendt to admit to his various crimes while wearing a microphone. Seeing how this takes place in 1929, the mic inside his vest has to be connected to a bulky transponder hidden in a suitcase underneath the bench, which is in turn connected to a squad van parked outside the venue, staffed by a small team of policemen overseeing the audio being recorded onto vynil.
- Parodied in Three's Company when Jack wears one to gather evidence of a corrupt food inspector who threatens to close down Jack's Bistro unless he receives a bribe.
- Subverted on The Shield as corrupt cop Vic realizes a fellow cop is wearing a wire in a meeting. Vic uses it to sell to Internal Affairs the idea that his entire reputation as a corrupt killer cop is all an act to intimidate them when in fact it's the truth.
Vic: Huh. The Armenians... speak Armenian.
- Also subverted in another episode where the Strike Team manage to bug the Armenian mafia, only to realise that the information they're getting isn't all that useful.
- In an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Goren and Eames convince a woman to wear a listening device to help convict her lover of murder. When the device is discovered, the woman tries to pass it off as a tube of lipstick, however the suspect still attacks and (at the time) it appeared they both died. However the team does wonder if the woman had previously warned the suspect ahead of time and perhaps what they had heard was staged, giving the suspect a chance to escape.
- In one episode of CSI, Warrick wore a wire to catch a judge who was trying to blackmail him into tampering with evidence.
- CSI NY:
- "Run Silent, Run Deep" had Danny's brother Louie beaten nearly to death. Investigation revealed that he had been wearing a wire while talking to the leader of his gang, getting the confession that cleared Danny of murder.
- "What You See Is What You See" had the first suspect in a shoot out in Mac's favorite diner get let out of lockup unexpectedly. The lab then found traces of tape residue inside his shirt which they'd taken for evidence. Turns out the guy was a C.I. for the Feds and had been wearing a wire.
- In one episode, Monk has to wear a wire in his tie, but he ruins the transmission by trying to clean a stain off the tie.
- In another episode, Monk goes undercover as a reputed crime boss and speaks directly into his sleeve while describing every single detail in the boss' hotel room.
- Parodied in a Mr. Show sketch, in which a rat leads a man to a hotel room for a drug deal, with a vast array of incredibly obvious bugs; the rat tells the perp to talk into a palm tree and takes his picture with a camera poorly hidden in an enormous sombrero. The perp is suspicious, but his fears are assuaged by a game of 'thumb-print tic-tac-toe.' (Despite the evidence, the perp is acquitted on an episode of America's Dumbest Juries.)
- A policeman told Americas Dumbest Criminals of a drug bust where he was wearing two devices. The dealer insisted on searching him, found one of them and accused him of being a cop. He said it was a pacemaker. The dealer believed this, then found the other wire. The cop convinced him it was an insulin pump. The dealer said "Man, you shouldn't be doing drugs, you're ill!" Then sold him the drugs, and was arrested.
- Ashes to Ashes (2008) subverts this, with an undercover informant who is the suspect's lover being given a wire... which, what with it being the 1980's, has a transmitter unit the size of a brick, and is prone to both interference and clothing noise. He is subsequently warned that he has to stay well away from the suspect to stop him from finding the wire, but the team still ends up overhearing the informant performing oral sex on the suspect.
- On The Wire, two detectives buy an incredibly expensive wire, intending to use it and then return it. They plant it on a drug corner inside a tennis ball. But the suspect, not knowing what it is, starts playing with the ball and eventually throws it into traffic, destroying the expensive equipment.
- They use the information anyway, crediting it to an informant named Fuzzy Dunlop.
- Family Matters:
- One of the episodes had Steve Urkel wear a wire when trying to infiltrate a gang or criminal enterprise of some kind. The criminals realized fairly quickly that Urkel was no gangster, first tearing off his (clip-on) earring and then opening his shirt to reveal the wire.
- In another episode, Carl is assigned to an undercover operation with an attractive female partner. When the criminals reveal the diamonds, more than once he repeats the code phrase "They look real to me" right into the location of the microphone — which happens to be on her breasts.
- Particularly nasty example in '80s cop show Houston Knights; the person wearing the wire was a civilian volunteer helping the police (partly because he had a romantic interest in one of the cops). Partway through the discussion, the wire malfunctioned and started sparking, and he was immediately shot and killed.
- An Australian mini-series The Bite involved a married couple who'd been convinced by the Australian Federal Police to help them gather evidence against a drug smuggling gang. While talking to the smugglers the electronic listening device actually beeps, and only some quick improvisation by the wife (she pretends it's her child's toy that's been left switched on) averts the crisis. She gives the feds an earful afterwards.
- In Criminal Minds, when the person wearing the wiretap nervously keeps moving his jacket, it caused the investigators to lose several important pieces of information.
- One episode of Desperate Housewives had Mike putting a wire on Susan before she goes out to question Edie. The wire does not stay hidden from Edie.
- In one episode of Spooks Danny is sent into a meeting wearing a high quality hidden microphone that works exactly as designed. Unfortunately the other people are so paranoid they take the (perfectly ordinary) stud he's wearing in his ear for a wire.
- In another episode an informer infiltrating a radical mosque is found with a bug on his person and tortured. So British Intelligence recruit a more experienced agent from Algeria, but when he's issued a bug and various other spy equipment, he tosses the lot in a canal.
- NCIS has used these from time to time.
- And had one used against them, hidden in an unwitting probationary agent's tooth.
- In Police Woman, Pepper Anderson frequently wears a wire during her undercover operations.
- In many cases, radio contact with the detectives monitoring her wire is lost just as things gets tricky, leaving her without backup in a dangerous situation.
- Often the wire is in her handbag (due to clunky 1970's technology that won't fit under her tight and skimpy clothes). This sometimes leads to trouble when she has to open her purse and the bad guys catch a glimpse of the transmitter.
- In the pilot episode, Pepper wearing a tight dress and is not carrying a purse. Some male colleagues are speculating on where exactly she could be hiding the wire (the answer turns out to be in her bra, but this is never shown).
- A Fan Disservice example from NYPD Blue: A male informant is fitted with a wire in his groin area (maybe because the detectives found him a pain in the behind and wanted to give him something to really complain about). The fitting takes place behind a closed door but we hear his complaints when the tape starts to pull at his pubic hair. He is later shown to be walking funny.
- Chicago P.D. occasionally makes a point of showing how hidden wire technology has advanced. Criminals will rip open cops' clothing or smash cell phones as precautions only to be taken down and for the inconvenienced cop to point out an inconspicuous piece of clothing that contained the actual wire.
Olinsky: For your information, the microphone was in my belt.
- Lucifer. In "Sympathy for the Goddess", Charlotte 'accidentally' spills water on the wire so Chloe immediately charges in with a SWAT team, aware that either Charlotte is either double-crossing them or she's in deep trouble.
- Law & Order: UK. Ronnie goes to talk to his corrupt ex-partner to get him to confess to stealing evidence. Suspicious, the man frisks him and finds a wire. After destroying it, he takes the pack of cigarettes that Ronnie offers him and confesses. At this point, Ronnie reveals that there's another microphone hidden in the box.
- The Bill. A Dirty Cop realises the criminal he's working with has turned informer and is recording their conversation. Suddenly he shouts, "Are you threatening me?", drops a knife into the criminal's hands and savagely beats him. Unfortunately he was being recorded on video as well as audio.
- In "Stool Pigeon" by Kid Creole and the Coconuts, the title character is an ex-con who makes a deal with the FBI. In return for immunity from prosecution and help in setting up a new life, he visits his crooked friends, gets them reminisicing about the cons they pulled together, and records it all with a hidden wire.
- John Finnemores Double Acts: In the episode "Wysinnwyg", Adele's obsession with the idea that her underling Kerry is wearing a Hidden Wire eventually gives Kerry the idea of manipulating Adele into selling sensitive information to a rival company then covertly recording her confession. As Kerry points out afterwards, it's no good to simply ask someone whether they're wearing a wire and take their word for it, you've got to search them.
- Used to catch a money laundering kidnapper in Season One of Where the Bears Are.
- Bob's Burgers: In "They Serve Horses, Don't They?", Hugo shanghais Bob into helping him catch a guy illegally selling horse meat. Since Hugo doesn't have an actual wire, he has to hide a pink toy microphone under Bob's shirt and record it using a brightly-colored kid's tape recorder.
- Parodied in Family Guy where Stewie is kept awake by a gang of drug dealers in the motel room next door.
Stewie: Oh for God's sake, there's only one way to put an end to this, HE'S WEARING A WIRE!
[various sounds of gunfire and screams follow]
- King of the Hill: During Buckley's funeral, Mr. Strickland talks to Hank about the fire that got Buckley killed. When Hank reiterates his innocence, Strickland says he's glad Hank said so because the authorities forced him to wear a wire.
- The Simpsons:
- Parodied in "Homer and Apu", where Homer wears a very small camera hidden in a ten-gallon hat to catch Apu selling spoiled food. In a subversion, it remains functional even after Homer throws it to the ground and stomps on it.
- Parodied in another episode, where Fat Tony and other mobsters are gluing cotton-balls to ferrets so they can sell them as 'toy poodles'. Homer bursts in:
Homer: Game's up, Fat Tony!
Fat Tony: How did you know?
Homer: One of the ferrets was wearing a wire!
[cut to a ferret wearing a ludicrously large, beeping device that goes all the way around its chest]
- Parodied yet again, when Bart is forced to go undercover to make an illegal fireworks deal with Fat Tony. Unbeknownst to Bart, Wiggum has fitted him with a two-way radio (which produces a noticeable bulge in Bart's shirt) and when Wiggum hears Fat Tony's voice, he calls to confirm it.
Chief Wiggum: Fat Tony, is that you? Fat Tony?
- When Fat Tony marries Selma and invites the Simpsons to his beach house, one of his thugs tells another about his concerns over a new guy who's wearing a wire and practically nothing else but his swimming trunks. He's trying to make the others brag about their crimes.
- In one story, Bart tries to tell on Homer to get out of his own legal troubles but Chief Wiggum refuses because he already has someone on Homer, who quickly guesses it's Lenny. Upset at being discovered, Lenny rips his wire.