Is the Sistine Chapel Bug-Proof?

Manfred Fink has worked as an expert in sound security since the reunification of Germany. At the end of the GDR, he received the commission to dissasemble the eavesdropping system of the former Ministerium for State Security (Stasi). asked him about sound security in the Sistine Chapel.

Mr. Fink, can one even make such a large and old building such as the Sistine Chapel bug-proof?

No, 100% bug-proof is not possible in a construction of this size. The entire inventory can be examined – with a corresponding technical effort which the experts there certainly are applying.  In the nature of things, a certain risk remains with the people that are present. The actual problem is the building material. There can be weak points through which sound waves can be transmitted out. Such weak points are very often present someplace or other in historical buildings – sound channels which possibly in previous eras were intentionally constructed so that one could hear with naked ears in other parts of the building without technical help. At the most, one can attain a security level in the Sistine Chapel of 95-98% at the most.

How would that work – simply listen in?

We know such examples of historical castles and palaces. Another architectural example which functions similarly: in earlier times this effect was intentionally employed on ships. This was a pipe canal from the bridgework to the engine room, and the crew communicated directly through these speaking tubes. Sound waves are transmitted not only in the air, but also through solid materials, for example stone, concrete, or metal. In prisons, inmates have communicated through the entire building with Morse code using a spoon on the heating pipes. Moreover, in principle the stove pipes in the Sistine Chapel could function this way.

So what more can one do to keep the deliberations of the conclave secret?

If one really wanted to establish bug-proof security, one would have to set up a so-called Faraday cage. That would mean that the inside of the Sistine Chapel would be covered with lead. But that would be an exorbitant expenditure, not only technologically. And naturally it would be inconceivable in view of the artistic value of the chapel. I think that one can live quite well with the remaining risks. Thus one will attempt to determine whether everyone holds to the prohibition on an communication with the outside. One can very easily determine whether anyone is carrying a cell phone. With measuring devices one can determine very well whether anyone has a bug hidden anywhere. That is checked by experts. A further weak point is the many windows in the upper section. With laser beam from the outside, the windows could be scanned for vibrations that give clues to what is spoken. To counter this, sound generators would help by overpowering the wound waves.

Where could the bugs be hidden?

There is no limit whatsoever to the fantasies here. You can camouflage a bug as any object you want. In furniture, a piece of wood, the inside of a solid material. The more inconspicuous and unspectacular the object looks, the great the risk that the bug is not seen. But with today’s technology one will very likely discover bugs, unless they are built into the walls.   

Is the housing of the cardinals in the guesthouse a risk?

In professional circles the word is that guesthouse are examined for illegal electronic devices just like the Sistine Chapel. But I doubt that one can examine the entire Sistine Chapel and the guesthouse at a high professional level in a timespan of a few weeks. The floor space and wall space is simply gigantic, even jus tin the Sistine Chapel, which is very high. The question is whether the examination can achieve the desired or necessary standards under these conditions. An amateur or semiprofessional listening device would certainly be discovered. But if a pro plans a well-executed attack and gets undetected access to the Chapel, then I wouldn’t be so certain.

One comment

  1. Who needs electronic methods when you have leaky cardinals.

    As the old saying goes: locks are for honest people.

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