Why Are Secret Service Agents Always Touching Their Ears?

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April 17 2012 6:08 PM

Why Are Secret Service Agents Always Touching Their Ears?

Are their earpieces uncomfortable?

A wax figure of a Secret Service Agent.
Even wax replicas of Secret Service agents touch their ears.

By Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

The Secret Service suspended 11 agents Thursday after allegations that some had solicited prostitutes in Colombia to bring back to their hotel. Among their other shifty behaviors, Secret Service agents seem to spend a lot of time reaching up with one hand to touch their ears. Why do they do that—are those earpieces uncomfortable?

No, it's just so they can hear better. Pushing in an earpiece makes for a tighter seal, which could mean the difference between hearing or missing a Secret Service codename or another agent’s message about the president’s position while standing in a noisy room. While earpieces are not uncomfortable, they do sometimes come loose, requiring readjustment.

Earpieces aren’t the only communication devices the Secret Service uses, and not all earpieces have the same design. Some devices, for example, look like iPod ear buds. The one-ear headphone often shown in the movies is standard and comes with a curly wire that runs down under their shirt to a hidden microphone worn in different locations depending on the circumstances of the assignment. One standard spot is just under the shirt sleeve. (That explains why agents are always lifting their wrists to their mouths.) Earpieces also come in different colors, and some agents choose a device that matches their skin or hair.

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Bonus Explainer: Why are Secret Service agents always wearing sunglasses? To keep the sun out of their eyes. While the Service has often cultivated a certain mystique, preferring to remain “cloaked in silence and mystery,” spokesmen insist they wear shades merely for their traditional purpose, and not, say, to keep would-be assassins from knowing which way they're looking. The Secret Service has no set uniform, but agents say that wearing sunglasses on a sunny day helps them to scan a crowd for suspicious behavior.


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Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer.