Ever feel like maybe someone is watching you? Well, maybe they are, and it might be time to get your own back. Steve Dinneen delves into the murky world of corporate and domestic espionage, and reveals which gadgets you should have in your secret stash.
From the novels of Ian Fleming and John le Carré to the latest Mission Impossible movie, we are a world obsessed by the idea of the hero spy. Now, some of the iconic tools of the trade – the gadgets that elevated James Bond to the status of a superhero – are becoming part of an increasing arsenal of espionage equipment available to almost anyone. While X-ray specs and jet packs may still be some time away, advanced surveillance and hacking equipment that would have cost thousands a few years ago can now be downloaded on to a smartphone for around $1.
In January, the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas saw a host of spy gadgets unveiled, including a helicopter-mounted mini camera controlled by your phone, which instantly streams video content to your device. While this may not be the most practical spying tool, it shows how far technology has come, and its availability on the mass market.
Whether you are a company executive worried someone may be about to poach your prized employee, or a regular traveller who suspects your spouse may be straying in your absence, there are numerous options available if you want to spy on them. However, a foray into the world of espionage can be a moral and legal labyrinth. The various laws around the world are straining to keep pace with rapidly evolving surveillance technology. Various pieces of legislation are pulling in different directions, leaving a gaping grey area in the middle. The UK phone hacking scandal has taught us that a person’s right to privacy can be backed up by the courts, but cases are complex and invariably expensive. One of the most contentious areas of spying is in employment. Most of us have thought twice before sending an email, in case our employer decides to rifle through our sent items. Similarly, the temptation for those in charge to follow the trail of digital breadcrumbs left by staff can be intense. But how far can companies legally spy on workers – and when does protecting the firm stray into breach of privacy, or even illegality?
“There are plenty of ways our employers can spy on us, but this doesn’t necessarily make them legal,” says Baker and McKenzie employment lawyer Daniel Ellis. “Obvious candidates are company property – phones, laptops, email accounts, information on what has been downloaded or printed – which they probably have easy access to. If there is a real desire to retrieve information, it can almost always be done. It’s amazing what forensic IT people can come up with. Employees should assume everything is public and nothing can be deleted.”
One of the simplest ways to check up on an employee is through social networking sites. A precedent was set last year when a JD Wetherspoon manager who had been caught ranting on Facebook about abusive customers, had her dismissal upheld by a tribunal. It seems a forum containing 500 “friends” is not considered the right place to vent private opinions.
“Employers need to be careful though,” Ellis says. “Even though a lot of this information is in the public domain, there are a number of pieces of legislation they can fall foul of. There is a chance employers could end up breaking the law.” If these risks aren’t enough, some employers go even further, adopting Bond-style surveillance gadgets to try to catch their staff out. In cases where there is genuine wrongdoing, this can be an invaluable last resort – but it isn’t something to take lightly.
Ellis says: “Covert monitoring is perhaps the most intrusive thing you can do. You need to have a very good reason before you even consider it. Any employer thinking about spying on their workers should ask themselves: ‘Is it reasonable?’ and ‘Is there a less intrusive way to get the information?’ If you suspect there is ongoing wrongdoing then you might be justified in covert surveillance – but it must be proportionate.”
Domestic surveillance – keeping tabs on a partner, for example – is an even murkier area, without employment law and corporate guidelines to help light the way. But for those willing to take the plunge, the home is full of opportunities to compromise the privacy of your loved ones. As with almost everything in consumer technology, smartphones are the driving force behind the new wave of covert surveillance. Almost any phone has the potential to become a tracking device. Some companies have legitimate apps that allow you to keep track of your kids or find your mates at a festival – Apple’s Find My Friends, for example. Others, particularly on Android’s less tightly regulated Marketplace, are more overtly geared towards espionage. One app, the RL Watcher, will turn your phone into a motion or sound-activated video recording tool, using the sensors built into most modern smartphones. Samsung’s new Smart Cam is a similar idea – a stand-alone motion-sensing camera that will send an alert to your phone every time it is triggered, and stream the footage live to your handset.
The moral implications of using these tactics are usually pretty clear – even if you’re sure your partner is partying wildly while you’re jetting off to Hong Kong to close the deal that will feed your family for a year, you probably shouldn’t go around recording them. But other cases are less clear cut – setting up cameras around your property because you suspect someone may be damaging it, or because you fear a neighbour may sneakily put your cat in a dustbin, seems more reasonable.
“It’s a very difficult legal area to predict,” says Steve Kuncewicz, an intellectual property and media lawyer at Gateley. “Covertly recording someone in their own home, even if you share that home with them, could be seen as a breach of privacy. There is certainly no guarantee that the footage will be admissible as evidence, if you want to rely on it for court action. But the law is playing catch-up on this one – it wasn’t designed to cope with the advanced technology we’re now seeing.”
The chances are, if somebody really wants to spy on you, you’ll never see it coming, and with no guarantee the law will protect you, you had better think twice before having that affair.
PR7000 HAND HELD BUG DETECTOR
In a world where spy equipment is available to almost everybody, perhaps it’s time to invest in a bug detection device. This gadget has a huge frequency range of between zero and 7200 MHz, high sensitivity and a ten-segment bar graph display, allowing you to pinpoint exactly where your husband, or the government, or whoever have placed their bugs. One particularly impressive feature is a silent vibration system that allows you to detect listening devices without arousing the suspicion of those around you. If you need to splash out on a bug detector, you’re probably already paranoid – but that doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. At least now you’ll know for sure.
PANASONIC I-PRO SMART HD NETWORK DOME CAMERA
If you value high-quality footage over size, then the Panasonic i-Pro Smart HD Network Dome Camera is for you. It can be programmed to detect motion in four different areas, using its ability to pan and tilt automatically. When triggered, it can be set to upload footage to an FTP server, send an email notification, or trigger an alert on a designated web browser. It is weather proof, built to function in low light and has an optical zoom of 36x. The downside is the price.
This free smartphone app is one of the best covert surveillance options for would-be sleuths. Place your phone so the camera is facing the area you want to record. It can be set to film for a customisable period of time, when it detects motion, sound or acceleration. Point it facing your front door and anyone entering will be on camera. The video will be saved on to the device and it can be set to send an alert to its owner by text message, phone call or email. It will work on almost any smartphone, although the quality of the recording will depend on how good your phone’s camera is.
HIDDEN CAMERA READING GLASSES
These glasses, containing a hidden, mounted camera, are probably one to file under “novelty”, but if you want to feel like James Bond for a while, they could be for you. They are operated by a discreet single button, allowing you to activate them quickly when your target is in your sights. They contain a five-megapixel camera capable of taking surprisingly good footage, and the images are easily downloadable via a USB connector. With 4GB of storage, you will get around an hour of continuous recording before you have to download the footage. At $650, they’re an expensive toy, but even the man who has everything probably doesn’t have these.
SAMSUNG SMART CAM
This device was launched at the Consumer Electronics Show in January and features a great interplay with smartphones. The motion and sound-sensitive camera can be set up to record as soon as someone enters the room. A message can be instantly beamed to your phone and the footage watched live from wherever you are in the world. A great feature will even let you connect to the camera via your smartphone’s microphone, allowing you to shout abuse at whoever has just broken into your house. Unlike many of the other “white label” surveillance products, this has the added bonus of being made by Samsung and is therefore likely to last.
SMOKE ALARM CAMERA
One of the more traditional spy devices that wouldn’t look out of place in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, this camera is mounted in the chassis of a regular smoke alarm and promises 12 hours of motion-activated recording. It comes with 4GB of storage space, but can be expanded with an SD card which, when combined with the extended battery option, can record up to 40 hours. It comes with a remote control, so you can quickly hit record to capture a target. Just be sure not to rely on it in the case of a fire – the smoke alarm is strictly for appearances only.
One of the most talked about launches at the Consumer Electronics Show, the not-so-subtly named Intruder, from Interactive Toy Design, probably isn’t going to help you catch your spouse having an affair, but it is a great big boy’s toy. The iPad and smartphone-controlled car has a camera built into the front grill that streams video live to your screen. While the range isn’t great, the controls are intuitive and manoeuvring it around corners using the camera is fun. Of course, you could always stop the engine, sit back and watch the footage, making it a more serious surveillance tool. Coming soon to interactivetoy.com.
There are many free keystroke recorders you can easily download, but one popular example is by Kmint21. Once initiated, it hides itself from view and silently records every key pressed on the target machine. This is particularly useful for parents wondering exactly what their kids are getting up to online. More subversive uses include discovering people’s passwords. The programme will only reappear, complete with a giant text file, when a pre-defined set of keys is pressed. Be warned, though – no matter what it is you’re looking for, you would probably rather you hadn’t bothered.
This sneaky little app is designed to eavesdrop on conversations that you probably shouldn’t be listening to. It will first ask you to set up a PIN code, after which your goal is to stash the phone in the area you want to listen into. Using any other phone, you need to send yourself a message containing the PIN and the number to call back. Your smartphone (it is Android, Blackberry, iPhone, Windows Mobile and Symbian compatible) then silently initiates a call, effectively becoming a listening bug. The quality of the sound will depend on how good your handset is at detecting ambient noise – most decent models will be able to hear normal conversations clearly, but will struggle to overcome background sound.
As espionage goes, the Wi-Spi helicopter has all the subtlety of a bright red brick, but it is a very clever piece of kit. The smartphone-controlled chopper comes mounted with a tiny camera that will stream content live to your handset, allowing you to spy on your neighbours while also annoying them with the noise. After its launch, one American said: “If I see this over my property, I’ll shoot it.” He may not be the only one. The helicopter is the sister device to the Intruder. Coming soon to interactivetoy.com.