In the last two years, my work as a national security reporter brought me into contact with an array of bright and gallant intelligence community personnel ranging from a temp at the National Security Agency to the director of the CIA. As it happens, the source who had the greatest influence on my latest espionage novel was a civilian who distributes cheap spy gadgets from his father’s basement.
We’ll call him Steve. Because his work involves a lot of legal gray area—using just about any of his products as intended violates electronic surveillance laws, potentially making you the next Linda Tripp—he prefers pseudonymity. But he happily shared his story with me, offered insights into the industry, and listed his bestselling devices.
Three years ago, his business consisted only of a website and his conviction that the URL would be found by suspicious spouses and people with nannies they didn’t trust. Since then, eavesdropping by private individuals has created an industry with about $2 billion in annual revenue—comparable to that of the National Hockey League. Of that, Steve pulls in about $2 million, all via the Web, which is home to almost all such transactions.
Tracking devices are his top sellers. If you suspect your spouse of having an affair, you might consider one. You simply conceal the matchbook-size wireless transmitter in your spouse’s car or overnight bag, then watch in real time on your computer or on your phone as it moves about the country or comes to rest at the local Holiday Inn Express.
Steve estimates that more than a million civilians worldwide have purchased the iGotU or similar trackers—demand so intense as to have spawned countless imitators and competition that has resulted in prices falling seemingly by the day ($69 at last check). Demand from law enforcement officials has surged as well lately. “By buying from me, they avoid red tape,” Steve says. “Plus the prices are cheaper. And where in government can you get overnight delivery?”
The number two seller: covert camcorders. Virtually identical to a typical car’s keyless remote, the fobcam may be most pragmatic. It’s able to both capture sound within twelve feet and shoot two to four hours of good-enough-to-incriminate-quality video.
The more popular pencam presents the problem of explaining to your subject why you’re holding a pen but not writing. Packofgumcam may get you in hot water if your subject asks for a stick of gum. Prices start at around $50.
Is it a coincidence that hidden camera locators are also in the top five? The $100-or-so handheld devices use lasers to locate lenses on fobcams, pencams, and packofgumcams.
Also among the bestsellers are nannycams. Given all the advances in technology, it’s no surprise that they now are available disguised as just about anything, ranging from stuffed animals to potted plants, all with the capacity to record every minute of the party the sitter has in your bedroom. A tricked-up teddy bear runs about $300.
If your goal simply is deterrence, says Steve, you might consider placing fake security cameras around your house. Models with motion-activated blinking LED lights start at $9.95.
Rounding out Steve’s top five are $50 keyloggers, benign-looking bits of circuitry that are easily concealed behind a target’s computer, then able to record 2,000 pages’ worth of keystrokes. To read your target’s e-mails, Ims, and Proust-length manuscripts, you simply detach the logger and connect it to your own computer.
Of course, you have no reason to obtain such a device. But given the business Steve does in these gadgets, it might be a good idea to make sure you don’t already have one.
For many more spy gizmos and a number of (relatively) trustworthy vendors, see http://keiththomsonbooks.com/links.html.
Keith Thomson has been a semi-pro baseball player in France, editorial cartoonist for New York Newsday, and a reporter. A resident of Alabama, he writes about intelligence and other matters for The Huffington Post. His novels include Once a Spy (Doubleday 2010) and Twice a Spy (Doubleday, March 2011).