Technology & Science

Keeping an eye on things: Spy gear goes mainstream

The latest surveillance gadgets for amateurs would make James Bond jealous.

Latest surveillance gadgets for amateurs would make James Bond jealous

Remote surveillance technology for the home has gone mainstream, with spy shops springing up across the country and online faster than you can answer a shoe-phone.
When Jon (not his real name), a 50-ish businessman, is on the road, he likes to keep an eye on what his two young-adult children are up to back at home. Thanks to surveillance gadgetry that's now available to the average parent, it's a snap.

"I've got two cameras that look like motion detectors, another disguised as an air purifier and one as a clock radio," he says. "They're all set up on my computer, each with a motion detector so that when something moves in front of them, it automatically records on my hard drive. I take my laptop when I travel and can hook into the cameras anywhere in the world."

Shades of James Bond and Maxwell Smart. Spying on the kids, wife, boyfriend, your employees, even the neighbours is easy game, and it's an investment in peace of mind for edgy parents.

When Jon went out of town recently, for example, he told his daughter she could invite half a dozen friends over. "I went online when I got to the hotel, and I saw 18 people in my house," he laughs. "Everything was fine, but in the event that something does happen, you've got the recording."

Remote surveillance technology has gone mainstream, with spy shops springing up across the country and online faster than you can answer a shoe-phone.

Ursula Lebana, the owner of Spytech, has three stores in Ontario that sell everything from cameras, microphones and recorders to software and tracking systems. Says Lebana: "The majority of our customers are business owners who want to find out who's stealing from them. They put a camera over the cash register and can see what employees are doing."

Software enables bosses to keep an eye on things even when they're on vacation. Sometimes, they catch a glimpse of something they might not necessarily want to see, Lebana says. "One president of a company who contacted us thought the night cleaners were stealing from him and, yes, they were. But they were also making out on his nice leather sofa."

Monitoring marital bliss

Suspicious wives and husbands are also helping to make spy tools a lucrative business.

Take GPS trackers and locators, which aren't just helping people find their way to grandma's house these days. Live trackers (about $750) let the viewer see where a car is going in real time. Other gadgets that can be hidden in a vehicle have a tracking log that can be plugged into a personal computer and indicate where the car has been.

Toronto garage mechanic Chris Karathanasis sees the spy business firsthand. "One woman brought her car to our garage because her husband always knew what she was doing. We put the car on the hoist, and sure enough there was a tracing device. We popped it off, and the last we heard she'd had a big scuffle with her husband."

Spy Shops of Canada owner John Demeter, from Niagara Falls, Ont., says he has installed GPS trackers for customers.

"Many times, I've put tracking devices on for men, and then their wife comes in asking us to look for a tracking device," he says. "We charge her $25, remove it and discover it's the same tracking device that we sold. Her husband comes back, buys another one and puts it on the same car."

The BlackLine GPS "Snitch" can be hidden in a vehicle and uses GPS technology and cellphone capabilities to track its location. ((Blackline GPS Inc./CP))
Listening in on phone conversations is also a popular way to keep tabs on lovers, Demeter says.

"There are phone recorders and room recorders," he says. "As for phones, I tell people if they're talking on a land line, then pretend everyone in Canada is listening to them. For a cellphone, it's everyone in the world. If I know your cellphone number, I can log on to it and listen to your conversation without it even being on." (A cellular spy phone and spy phone interceptor costs $1,200 to $1,800.)

Kathleen, a Toronto housewife, discovered that her husband had planted voice-activated recorders around the house. "I couldn't figure out how he heard my conversations. He quoted things I'd said, but I'd never said them to him. I finally discovered a recording device in my car under the seat and I confronted him. He still tries to do things, but I've outsmarted him."

Many stores sell software that allows people to tap into each other's computers, too. Parents especially are anxious to monitor their children's e-mails. Programs like eBlaster ($125) can monitor a computer from a remote location and deliver activity reports to a parent's e-mail address.

Neighbourhood watch

When people run out of significant others to spy on, why not take a peek at the neighbours?

"There's been a huge increase in problems with neighbours," Lebana says. "It used to be the occasional barking dog when I started up, but now people are being threatened and vandalized by their neighbours. It's really scary. They buy cameras to watch their property and their cars."

Of course, with every means of surveillance comes the counter-surveillance.

If you want to know who is watching you, there's everything from the Mini-Bug Detector - it detects video, audio or telephone transmitters ($160) - to the Body Mic Buster, which detects a transmitter or recorder ($695). If you have the money and the need to protect your privacy, you can even get a telephone encryption system for about $1,150 that scrambles phone conversations.

In short, the security specialists are the only ones guaranteed to come out ahead in the race to protect privacy.   John Demeter laughs. "Whatever someone invents can be countered easily. It's an unending game - there is no checkmate."