We regularly look at what I’ll call “common security devices” – outdoor lights, motion-activated lights, including the very popular Ring doorbell camera.
All these are designed to prevent an unwelcome surprise or potential criminal activity.
Security devices help you keep an eye on what’s going on around your home or place of business.
Let’s stop for a moment and take a look at things from the other side.
What about surveillance devices?
Surveillance devices — sometimes called spy gear or spyware — may be letting others watch you!
If you’re a fan of spy movies or novels, a lot of what follows will sound familiar. The thing is, what used to be fantasy is now everyday reality.
Before we start, keep in mind that some of what we’re about to discuss may have legal restrictions. *
Still, people are using “spy gear” every day, and as someone interested in safety and security, you ought to have a basic awareness of what’s out there and how it works.
Examples of everyday spy gear.
We’ve all seen the movie where the detective goes directly to the phone in the room, takes off the base, and silently points to the recording device installed there.
These days, with communications taking place via cell phone, that sort of technology may be outdated!
1-Track a cell phone.
You surely know about the “Find my phone” capability in your smart phone. You can use the app or sign into iCloud and you’ll see a map showing your phone. (By the same token, if someone knows your login in and password, they can pretend they are you, log in and find your phone — and you — the very same way.)
The GPS technology built into the phone allows someone to track a lot more than just where you (and your phone) are. Stealth programs can locate the phone on a map, trace the route the phone has taken and alert the program owner if the phone has gone outside a preset boundary. More comprehensive programs can track all phone activity including instant messaging and social media activity.
More advanced phone tracking software typically requires a monthly subscription.
2-Secretly record a cell phone call.
If you want to record calls you make on your own phone, it’s usually a question of downloading the right app and learning how to activate it before you call, and then turning it off again when the call is over.
But what about secretly recording calls someone else is making? Again, it’s a question of software. You download a program onto your computer, then get your hands on the other person’s phone long enough to get it set up. Then, when they make a call to a specific number, or at a specific time, the call is recorded. You can download it and listen at your convenience. You may even be able to see pictures that are being sent via instant messaging, etc.
This sort of surveillance ware typically requires a monthly subscription because the data is sent to a hosting account maintained by the product manufacturer. You log in to your account to view what’s been recorded.
There are a lot of options associated with the programs that track cell phone usage. Here’s a site that reviews this sort of spyware: http://www.top10spysoftware.com/
3-Take a video with a hidden camera.
We’re certainly accostomed to security cameras looking down at us in public places – and they have been instrumental in helping law enforcement catch criminals. (Remember the Boston Marathon bombers on video?)
We’re not so used to videos being taken in private settings, however.
In fact, many ordinary items — like the teddy bear in the photo above! — can house a hidden camera and most people would never suspect them. Just a quick jaunt through Amazon shows these examples. Prices start at around $20, and some are even cheaper. (See my Personal Disclaimer at the end of this Advisory.) Click on the images or on the links for details and prices.
Note: when choosing a hidden camera you have to decide if the unit is standalone, or whether it can be connected to the wireless Internet network in your home or office. To use a standalone unit, you’ll have to remove the SD storage card and plug it into a computer to view what’s been recorded. If you can connect to the network, you may be able to watch what’s going on remotely.
A pen that is actually a camera? Standalone unit, perfect for any business setting. Be sure it writes, of course. (This one actually comes with pen refills.)
32GB HD Spy Pen Camera 100 Min Video Recorder, FREE 32GB Memory Card, 5 Extra Ink Refills – Professional Secret Mini Digital Security Pencil With Tiny Undetectable Hidden Covert Cam
Look around the room you are in. See a wall clock? See a desk clock? Either one could have a hidden camera, taking photos of you right now! The average person would never even notice this one, for example:
OUMEIOU 1080P 16GB Spy Hidden Camera Alarm Clock Infrared Night Vision Simplified Version
One of my favorites for a bedroom is a smoke alarm. Easy to mount! (But don’t put up a second alarm if there’s a real one already installed. Someone would notice that!) (Click on image for more details.)
And again, for the office, hotel room, whatever . . . a spy camera that is housed in a phone charger or AC adapter. Comes in black or white to match your own device.
The list goes on. There are , . .
- light bulbs with hidden cameras
- electrical outlet plates
- picture frames
- key fobs
- a tablet or iphone case
- a bottle of water
- (what looks like) a pack of chewing gum!
And a last idea. Take a picture BACK through a door peephole using this clever reverse peephole spy cam!
4-Listen to a private conversation.
While there were plenty of spy cameras to look at, I didn’t see anywhere near as many audio listening or recording devices. Probably because of legal limitations — see the Legal Disclaimer. However, you can find good quality up-close recording devices built into wrist watches like this one.
Spy cameras with recording devices can also be hidden in pens, similar to the one above, or in flash drives like the one below. Or you can buy a tiny recorder, no bigger than a button, and stick it anywhere.
Again, click on any of the images to go to Amazon, where you’ll be able to get an idea of features and costs.
5-Track someone’s whereabouts.
GPS trackers have saved hikers lost in the woods. (We include a review of an excellent GPS radio here.) They also track commercial vehicles and the cars of family members, including pets. An obvious GPS tracker can be put in a pocket, stuck in the car door, or fastened to a pet collar. Hidden GPS trackers are fastened so that they are hidden, of course!
A “simple” tracker is motion activated. It records and saves info about where it went, to what address, how fast it traveled, etc. To get the info, you must retrieve the tracker and plug it into a computer.
An “advanced” tracker can provide real time tracking. It’s powered via battery, or is hardwired to the electrical system, and it sends messages to a cellphone or computer. Advanced trackers can send data in near real time. They require a subscription.
Here’s an “advanced” tracker that reports in every 5 seconds. You can set up “boundaries” for the item being tracked and be notified via email when the boundaries are crossed. Attach to a vehicle with its magnetic case.
6-Track what someone is doing online.
It’s easy to download and install “tracker” software on any computer. It records all activity and, in fact, can record every keystroke. It can send alerts when certain words appear in an email or on a website. And it can block access to certain sites or emails.
If your boss or family member installs this on YOUR computer, they can monitor everything you are doing from their own phone, tablet or computer. The installation is difficult if not impossible to detect. (It’s also legal for your employer to track everything you do with company-owned property, in case you were wondering. Check your Employee Policies Manual for your own company’s rules.)
Again, this kind of web-based program requires a monthly subscription. Looking for more information about monitoring software? Again, here’s a review site: http://www.toptenreviews.com/software/privacy/best-monitoring-software/scription.
Counter Surveillance Technology
If you think you might be the target of some of these surveillance gadgets or techniques, you may have to spend some money to find out.
When it comes to computer spyware, you may not be able to detect it yourself. Good anti-virus or anti-spyware may help. Here a link to one of the best: Norton Security Premium – 10 Devices [Download Code]
When it comes to company-owned computers, you may be out of luck. Best solution? Change your behavior so you don’t have to worry.
As for finding listening devices or hidden cameras, “sweeping” a room may require something like this, designed to sweep a room to find hidden listening devices and cameras: Spy-Hawk Security Products Pro-10G is the 1 GPS Tracker Finder and Law-Grade Counter Surveillance Bug Sweep – Newest Professional Handheld Detection of All Active GPS Trackers, Mobile Phones
Finally, you could try protecting your own cell phone from being tracked by carrying it in a “signal blocking bag.” Inexpensive peace of mind:
SYB Phone Pouch, Cell Phone EMF Protection Holster Sleeve for Phones up to 3.25″ Wide, Black with Belt Hoop
*Now for the Legal Disclaimers
All these items come with a caution to USE LAWFULLY. I am not a lawyer and am not giving any legal advice, but here are the basics that appear at every website or in every product description. Keep them in mind and do more research if you plan to use any of the devices we’ve talked about here.
- Federal laws are one thing, and state laws another. Be sure you know how your state defines “lawful” when it comes to secretly recording or filming.
- Generally, taping or filming someone who has an “expectation of privacy” can get you into trouble, and your recordings probably can’t be used as evidence. You may be able to use them to help you make private decisions, of course.
- Audio recording is more problematic than video recording.
- If you own the property, or have permission, you can put up a video camera with no audio. (This is the “nanny cam” standard.)
- When it comes to audio, at least one person must give permission for the recording to be legal. (In some states, both parties must be notified and give permission.)
And my personal disclaimer:
I’m not at all an expert on these devices, and unlike most of the things we write about, I have not owned any spyware. (Joe is more paranoid than I am, and has a lot more experience. He made important additions to this article.) And, of course, technological breakthroughs have a way of changing everything overnight!
Still, what I discovered in researching these devices is:
- Prices vary widely on nearly all items. (The exception is monitoring software from well-known brands.) Even some of the small items (like a flash drive/camera) can cost anywhere from $15 to $50, so you definitely need to shop carefully. (Generally, I have tried to select mid-range items as my examples.)
- Some of the inexpensive items seem to be unreliable. You are probably wasting your money on them.
- Many of these items are available only directly through specialty spyware stores. And not all of them have return policies or guarantees, so again – shop carefully. (That’s why the examples from this article are all from Amazon, where I have had some good experiences in customer service and in returning merchandise that didn’t work as advertised.) Rather than order online, you may want to visit a brick-and-mortar store to talk to a knowledgeable salesperson.
And a few more buyer’s notes:
Many of these devices are powered by batteries. Some are hardwired to electrical sources. Most are either “motion activated” or “heat activated,” which go a long way to extending battery life. What’s being recorded goes onto a SIM card and you avoid having to scroll through hours of dead time.
As with all emergency devices, be sure you understand how they are powered and how often you’ll have to replenish the power source.
And as with all electronic devices, make sure you realize just how much data your spy device can actually store before it runs out of memory and shuts down. As you can imagine, the more memory, and the higher the fidelity of the sound or image, the more you pay.
This Advisory is in no way comprehensive. It is meant to give you an overview of the kinds of spyware readily available today, and that you have probably come into contact with, without even knowing it!
If privacy is a big concern for you — and certainly, it’s becoming more of a concern these days for everybody — you’ll want to find out more about these devices.
Your Emergency Plan Guide Team
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