Inside the Shady World of Spy Gadgets
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The online catalogs have names like Spy World, Spy Source and even Spy Zilla. The wonderful and disturbing new world of spy gadgets offers obscure, often expensive devices -- available in most cases to anyone with a credit card.
Most spy gadgets should be and could be used for legal and ethical purposes -- but you know they probably won't be.
Hidden cameras, secret microphones, GPS tracking devices, telephone voice changers, camera and microphone detectors, computer and cell phone snooping devices, cell phone and Wi-Fi "jammers" -- spy gadgets are sold vaguely and euphemistically as "security" or "surveillance" products. But you can bet they're popular with perverts, snooping bosses, suspicious spouses, cheaters, blackmailers, criminals and terrorists.
Nobody monitors who buys this stuff or what they use it for. Gartner and other analyst firms don't write reports comparing sales or following trends as they do with other electronics. Spy gadgets aren't generally "reviewed" by the major technology publications or blogs -- there is no army of P.R. flaks pushing evaluation units at the press.
Quite the opposite: Spy gadget catalogs tend to hide the make and model of each device, and emphasize only functionality. The so-called names of the products are often purely descriptive.
Nearly all the catalogs sell devices that are illegal somewhere, though most are willing to ship internationally and leave it up to the buyer to obey local laws.
Personally, I've never bought a spy gadget. When I find some cool new spy device, I have a moment of gadget lust, followed by the realization that I just don't have the "ethical flexibility" required to use it. "Wow! Sunglasses with a built-in video camera! Uh, on second thought..."
Still, obsessively following new developments in the spy gadget universe is a guilty pleasure.
Many spy gadgets are the kind of thing "Q," from the James Bond movies, might cook up. The spy gadget universe is so well stocked with such amazing contraptions that I sometimes wonder if real spies have anything better or if they just go online and buy the same stuff with a government credit card.
Spy gadgets represent a morbidly fascinating, dark corner of the global revolution in electronics miniaturization. Just look at some of the Spy Gadgets that have come out recently, all of them equally wonderful -- and horrible.
The Under Door Remote Viewing Kit This camera is designed to be slipped under a door, giving you a video peek at whatever's on the other side. The business end of this thing is embedded in a quarter-inch high stick of plastic. Once the camera is inside, you can pivot the device to see the whole room. You can plug the video feed into both a video camera and an included handheld display. A Night Vision Pocket Scope lets you see in the dark. I couldn't find a catalog that lists a price. (Ninja outfit seen in the catalog photo not included.)
Cell Phone Spy Data Extractor Plug this $149 USB SIM card reader into your computer, insert somebody's card, then extract, copy or edit the contents of the SIM card -- including contact entries, text messages and call history. (Then you can put the SIM card back in the phone, and the owner will be none the wiser.) The catalog says you can "spy on your wife, husband, teens, or an employer," but, well, if you must, you can also use it to back up and manage your own phone.
GSM Bug Picture Frame Spies, cops and private eyes are always "bugging" people -- planting secret microphones in order to eavesdrop on conversations. And now, you can too. This $250 device looks like an ordinary picture frame. But hidden inside is a standard SIM card, a high-quality microphone and cell phone electronics, minus the speaker. To spy on your victim, simply dial the frame's phone number from any phone. After two rings, you'll be "connected," and you can hear everything that's going on over the phone.
Cap Covert Video Camera This $350 baseball cap sports a tiny camera lens that, according to one catalog, "you'd need a magnifying glass to see." If you also buy a separate digital video recorder (DVR), you'll be able to walk around and videotape everything you look at. Because the DVR is built into the cap, there are no wires to conceal.
Cellular Interceptor At least one catalog says that this product is available to "government buyers only" and is "not for sale to civilians." Who knows if they have the ability to actually screen buyers, or if they just say all this on the Web site in order to avoid legal trouble? The device is a special laptop with a powerful antenna and custom software that enables you to listen in on GSM cell phone conversations. No price is listed.
These are just a few of the many cool, if shady, new spy gadgets available online. If you want to see more, check out some of the major catalogs:
In addition to writing for Datamation, where this column first appeared, Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org m or his blog: http://therawfeed.com.