Cameras with lenses as small as the point of a pen have put video surveillance at the fingertips of just about anyone.
Cheaper and smaller than ever, the cameras increasingly are being used to monitor property, watch wildlife, keep an eye on baby sitters or children, and spy on people, raising privacy issues.
"A few years ago all this wireless stuff was pretty much reserved for government or covert agencies," said Stephen Barnhart, owner of Barnhart Security & Alarm Inc. in Grandview, Mo. "Now anyone can buy a wireless, they can pop it somewhere and put it anywhere from 50 feet to 50 miles away and they've got transmission."
Tiny cameras can peer undetected from inside a clock, an overhead light, the bill of a cap, a necktie, a flower, a stuffed animal, just about any place you would least expect one. The camera transmits video to a monitor, recorder or computer screen.
Supercircuits Inc., a leading seller of video cameras, has seen revenue from the sales of small cameras more than double in the last four years while their prices have dropped 311 percent, said Steve Klindworth, president of the Texas-based company.
A wireless camera with a built-in transmitter can be purchased for as little as $10, and a kit that includes a receiver is available over the Internet for about $30, Barnhart said.
The cameras have shrunk along with their prices. Supercircuit cameras that cost $150 nine years ago are $12 today, said Jake Lahmann, the company's operations manager. They mostly are purchased through catalogs, the Internet or independent shops.
Cameras now are as small as a sugar cube because they operate on sensor chips that are sophisticated enough to pack more and more circuitry on them, Klindworth said.
"Everything is getting smaller, that's just the nature of electronics," Klindworth said. Cameras are getting cheaper because the chips can be mass produced, he said.
Prices vary according to the quality of the camera and the range of the receiver, he said.
The growing trend is to have signals transmitted to a digital device and received over the Internet, Klindworth said. Such systems with the broadest range are available for $400 to $500, he said.
In medicine, tiny cameras commonly are used in surgery or to look inside digestive tracts and are being put into capsules that patients swallow so that their intestines can be filmed.
But hiding small cameras to simply watch people has created growing concern.
"We have a whole new era," said Lillie Coney, associate director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center. "Individuals' access to technology could pose a privacy threat to those around them. People are just becoming aware of this, and there is no social norm for it."