High-Tech Spy Gear Readily Available to Public as Prices Drop

NEWINGTON, Conn. -- Visit the ISpyGear.com store on the Berlin Turnpike and you'll see "Mondo," a life-size mannequin standing in the front window.

What you may not realize is that Mondo also sees you _ through a half-dozen tiny cameras. There's one embedded in Mondo's cap, another in his sunglasses, still others in his jacket, necktie, pager and shoulder bag.

The cameras, generally no bigger than a matchbook, are invisible to the casual viewer, a powerful example of how high-tech surveillance equipment can turn up just about anywhere.

Once reserved for security professionals and James Bond-style secret agents, high-tech "spy gear" is quickly going mainstream.

Falling prices and quality improvements are leading consumers to snap up surveillance gadgets for monitoring the baby sitter or nanny, protecting cars, snooping on wayward spouses and more.

The trend is raising alarms among privacy advocates who fear a wave of secret videotaping and voyeurism. Cameras, global positioning systems and other surveillance technologies, they say, can be abused by government, business and individuals. One example is the growing number of people being arrested for hiding cameras in places such as locker rooms and bathrooms.

But rising sales of spy gear, via online stores and retail "spy shops," show strong demand for technologies that keep virtual tabs on people and property.

Pat Palmer, president of Spy Chest Inc., an online spy gear shop in Laurel Hill, Fla., said his sales have grown 40 to 50 percent annually over three years as consumers have become more aware of what spy gear can do.

"As technology comes down in price, you open doors to more and more people," Palmer said.

That's also driving sales of technological countermeasures aimed at detecting or foiling surveillance gear. "Bug detectors" that can help identify hidden recorders or wireless devices sell at spy gear shops for between $30 and $300, depending on features.

Much of the consumer interest is in tiny cameras and in GPS satellite tracking devices. Both technologies have seen quantum leaps in quality, as well as falling prices, in recent years, experts said.

"It's incredible how small the lenses have gotten and the quality of the picture," said Don Stachelek, a private investigator who runs the ISpyGear.com retail store as a sideline.

Prices for low-end video cameras, which can be hooked to TV monitors, videocassette recorders and even the Internet, have fallen below $100. Color cameras and wireless cameras can cost several times that, but are still much cheaper than they were even two or three years ago.

Ray Ranno, owner of Eye Spy Gadgets & Accessories in Hartford, said some common household objects, such as clock radios, boom boxes and teddy bears, have tiny cameras pre-installed.

Among the buyers are people like Jody Winslow of Meriden, who said he installed a camera monitoring system to discover the source of some petty vandalism to his house and car.

When the camera captured an incident, Winslow said, he was able to confront the person responsible and end the problem.

"The tape doesn't lie," he said. "It's hard to argue with at that point."

Two other buyers, who declined to give their names, bought tiny surveillance cameras for $150 from The Spy Shop, a retail gear outlet in the Milldale section of Southington.

One said he wanted to confirm his suspicions that the nanny minding his children was stealing valuables from the house.

"Things have been missing and I know it's her, but I want to have something where it's beyond question," the man said. "It's good to be able to look in on my own home."

The other buyer, who operates a contracting business, said he wanted to safeguard landscaping equipment from theft.

"I'm not looking to be spying," he said. "But if there's an incident, we'll have a record of it."

Cheaper pricing has encouraged some novel uses for the camera technology. Some pet lovers, for example, have hooked home surveillance cameras to the Internet so they can look in on their dogs and cats while at work.

Michael Scott, spokesman for D-Link Systems Inc., a leading maker of remote cameras and wireless technology, said some buyers use Internet-accessible cameras to keep an eye on vacation homes.

Creative applications are also being found for GPS devices, spy gear vendors said. Parents install them in automobiles to keep track of where their teenage children drive and how fast. Suspicious married people hide them to learn if spouses are making secret rendezvous. GPS devices can also be given to children and early Alzheimer's patients in case they wander off.

GPS services can be expensive. Active devices that permit real-time tracing typically cost $600 to $800 and have monthly service fees of $20 to $30, said Leif Kehrein, owner of The Spy Shop. That cost, he said, deterred a prospective customer from buying one to track the movements of her wandering cat.

Ironically, rising sales of surveillance equipment are spawning another trend: rising sales of anti-surveillance gear. Kehrein recalls one instance where a husband bought a wireless camera to track the activities of his wife. A few weeks later, the wife became a customer too.

"She bought a wireless detector to find out where the camera is," he said.