Electronic surveillance has become a family affair--and a big business by Carl S. Kaplan.
High above busy 34th Street, in an 80th floor suite in the Empire State Building that reeks of calm, Ed Sklar is giving a Cook's tour of some of the most popular spy gadgets he sells to paranoid and security-minded consumers.
There's a black-leather attache case with hidden microphone and hide-away tape recorder--perfect for covertly taping conversations and promises that might otherwise be lost.
For women on the go: a recording purse that resembles a sleek, designer bag. At $600, it can be used for documenting sexual harassment on the job or to help prove spouse abuse. `We originally built this at the request of a client who was referred to us by a divorce attorney,' says Sklar, the president of Spy Tech. Pulling other gadgets off the shelves, the snoop maestro explains the uses of wiretap detectors, telephone-recording equipment, and something called the `Electronic Stethoscope,' an under-$300, amplified hearing device that can detect faint sounds--and voices--behind walls.
`Let's go to covert video surveillance,' the designer and vendor says cheerfully, pointing to a cuddly teddy bear. This $1,200 stuffed animal contains a tiny video camera that peeks through the belly button--good for monitoring the baby sitter.
Once upon a time, espionage devices such as the all-seeing bear were the stuff of James Bond fantasies and, perhaps, a government or industrial spook's arsenal. Not any more. Selling for consumer use is the new trend in surveillance gear, creating by one estimate a $100-million industry--and a host of concerns about privacy.
`Maybe the Nineties are going to be the spy decade,' said Steve Brown, a buyer for The Sharper Image, whose catalog is expanding its spy gadgetry. `We're doing it because it's fun, different and [will] cause excitement in the stores.'
Privacy advocates are excited, too, but for a different reason. They claim that although some surveillance equipment is against federal law, legal loopholes, lax enforcement and a new social acceptability for spying allow the proliferation of equipment to go unchecked. `When people talk about Big Brother, they mean the government. But Big Brother is not the government--it's each of us,' said Rudolph Brewington, a privacy advocate who says he was bugged--electronically--by his spouse after she filed for divorce. `The James Bond syndrome . . . people think of [spy gadgets] as romantic, wonderful. But they are despicable,' he said.
Professionals such as Sklar, taking advantage of lower prices for the sophisticated wares and popular interest in electronics, say they are marketing to upscale retail stores, glossy catalog companies and directly to shoppers and small-business owners.
For example, The Sharper Image, which also has a Manhattan store, will list three spy gadgets in its August catalog: the Electronic Stethoscope, a phone-tap defeater, and a wireless transmitter/receiver kit, for listening to sounds at a distance.
A particularly intrusive gadget is among those in Sklar's office: a seemingly conventional television set.
`This TV watches you,' he says. `It has a built-in video camera behind the speaker.'
It works like this: If you think your spouse is cheating, bring the $1,500 set home as a gift, put it in the bedroom, then go away on business. Upon return, check the videotapes.
Demand for sophisticated audio and video surveillance devices is fueled by many factors, including yuppie toy lust, the desire to gain an advantage and high divorce rates--which promote spousal suspicion, according to experts.
Spy gadgets are `epidemic' among warring or litigating couples, said Maureen Gawler, a Maryland-based private investigator. `I see over and over, men and women using different types of bugging devices, including video surveillance . . . just to find things out, for legal blackmail. They want to know what their spouses are doing,' she said.
Raoul Lionel Felder, a New York divorce attorney for Robin Givens and Nancy Capasso, said he shuns `slimy' information from amateur spouse spies. But Felder acknowledged that evidence gathered by illegal eavesdropping might be used by some lawyers. `It's never so crude as using illegal surveillance as the evidence,' he said. `They work backward. A husband taps a phone and finds out his wife is committing adultery. He takes the tape and destroys it, then [hires someone] to watch the `Hotbed Hotel' and gather legal evidence.
`The psychodynamics of it are, you gotta find out, punish, get the edge,' Felder continued. `Many people get tap happy, start tape recording their lawyer. Whenever I see a woman with a large pocketbook, I assume she's taping me.'
There are other users, though. Sklar--who founded his firm in Miami four years ago with corporate accounts, and who targeted New York and consumer clients last year--said many of his clients are prudent professionals who wish to record oral agreements. He also caters to `people with problems.'
`In today's society, with many parents working, the problem of abuse by baby sitters, nannies, is hitting the headlines,' Sklar said. `That's generated a lot of interest' in video bugs.
By way of example, Sklar mentioned a notorious `video slapping' case. In 1989, a Chattanooga, Tenn. couple, fearful that their baby sitter was abusing their 6-month-old baby, secretly videotaped her slapping the child. The sitter pleaded guilty to misdemeanor to child-abuse charges, and a judge sentenced her to a year in jail after watching the tape.
The wave of surveillance gadgets also has created a market of response products. Suzanne Harper, vice president of Digitech Telecommunications Inc., a New York-based distributor of security wares to mail-order houses and retailers, said one of her most popular items is `Phone Guard,' a $300 phone-tap detector and defeater. Her company also sells various other `bugging' detectors and telephone-voice scramblers--though experts said some `countermeasure' devices give consumers a false sense of security.
`Some of this stuff has no purpose but to feed a particular void in society that can be [filled] for $200. It's paranoia,' said Michael Goodrich, owner of Spectra Research Group, a Manhattan-based supplier of security equipment.
One impact of the trend is the creation of spy victims who--through accident or ingenuity--discover they have been bugged.
Brewington, 43, a Washington, D.C.-based government worker, said he fell into the spy trap in Pittsburgh in 1987. `I was going through a very bitter divorce,' he said. `One evening, under the pretext of reconciliation, my wife invited me into her bed . . . I was laying there holding her and she started hollering as if I was raping her. My antennae went up.
`Two weeks later, I discovered a voice-activated tape recorder in a closet upstairs,' he said. `It had about 45 minutes of secretly recorded conversations of the two of us.' Brewington sued, claiming his wife illegally recorded his conversations without his consent, in violation of Pennsylvania law. The case is pending.
The legality of selling and using some surveillance equipment is a `gray area,' according to attorney Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of Privacy Journal in Washington, D.C.
For one thing, while federal law makes it a felony to sell, manufacture, advertise or possess an electronic device that's `primarily useful' for the surreptitious interception of wire or oral communications, there can be different interpretations as to what is `primarily useful,' Smith said. Many devices, such as the Electronic Stethoscope, can have benign uses, such as checking for water leaks.
Sellers of spy gadgets tend to protect themselves by citing legal uses for their devices, even though `it's pretty clear [some] devices could be used to overhear two strangers,' Smith said.
Indeed, ads often deliver mixed messages. Life Force Technologies, a Colorado-based mail-order company that sells more than 30 security devices, promotes its Electronic Stethoscope by saying: `Monitor the baby breathing in the nursery . . . and even diagnose engine sounds.' But the accompanying photo depicts a debonair man in tuxedo pressing the gadget against a white plaster wall. There's also a disclaimer: `It is a Federal Offense to intercept oral communciations, and these devices are not sold for that purpose.'
Whisper 2000, an under-$20 amplified hearing headset sold directly via cable TV and newspapers, `has dozens of practical uses,' according to one ad. `Take a walk outdoors and you'll hear birds sing like you've never heard them before.' Nevertheless, the Washington Post stopped accepting the ads, said a Post lawyer, `because we had some concern . . . about it being a surveillance device.'
Besides regulating the sale of devices, federal law also restricts wiretapping and eavesdropping acts. But a loophole exists: `It's legal to bug people when you are a party to the conversation,' Smith said. That doctrine, called `one-party consent,' enables a person equipped with a briefcase recorder to secretly tape a conversation he's included in. Fourteen states, including Pennsylvania, California and Maryland, have adopted the more restrictive `two-party consent' rule, which requires that all members of a conversation give prior consent. In New York, one-party consent holds sway.
Covert video surveillance, meanwhile, is not covered by federal wiretapping statutes, Smith said. But general principles apply: A bugger can't criminally trespass to place a camera, or put a camera in an area where a victim has a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as a bathroom.
To help curb amateur spying, Rep. Ronald V. Dellums (D-Calif.) last year introduced a bill that would amend the federal Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Street Act by requiring two-party consent in non-law-enforcement cases. The bill also would require manufacturers to equip voice-activated tape recorders with beep tones to help prevent misuse.
Yet even some lobbyists supporting the measure give it little chance of quick passage, because public concern has not caught up with technology. `Until we have more people who have been victimized and write to Congress, we're not going to get this legislation moving,' said Janlori Goldman, a privacy attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Some security experts opposed to the Dellums bill say that adequate laws exist to protect privacy. They say the problem is low-priority enforcement.
A spokesman for the FBI countered: `We pursue [illegal surveillance] rather vigorously when it comes to our attention.' But Douglas Tillett, a spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department, acknowledged that evidence to prompt an investigation can be hard to get. `As a practical matter, if your neighbor wants to put a device on the wall and listen to you, there's almost no way the government can know that is happening,' Tillett said.
The problem of victims not knowing they are victims has caused at least one privacy advocate to adopt a fatalistic attitude toward amateur spying. `I think it is dreadful, but I also think it is hopeless to try and stop it,' said Herman Schwartz of American University's Washington College of Law in Washington, DC. `I'm afraid that given the pervasiveness of electronics stuff in society, it's just not feasible to enforce the law.'
There's always the chance, however, that peer pressure can force changes. Private eye Gawler tells the following story about one of her surburban neighbors: A mother, concerned about her children's possible drug use, secretly planted a video camera in her house. When the camera recorded one of his children's playmates smoking marijuana, the bugger passed the evidence to the drug user's mother--who grew angry at the invasion of her child's privacy.
`The whole thing exploded in the neighborhood . . . all the parents were mad' at the bugger, Gawler said. `Now no kids go to that woman's house. Her kids lost all their friends.'
Spy devices aren't only for adults. Tyco Industries Inc. in March started shipping its `Real Working Long Range Microphone,' a $16 boom mike with earphones marketed `for ages 5 to adult.' The toy, part of the company's `Spy-Tech' line, can pick up sounds `up to 50 feet away!' says the product's packaging.
B. James Alley, senior vice president of marketing at Tyco, reckons he will sell 180,000 units this year. `All little kids like to play spy,' he said.
But one child's plaything can be another's weapon. In April, Action for Children's Television, the Boston-based advocacy group, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, charging that Tyco's toy is an illegal eavesdropping device.
For its part, Tyco scoffs at the complaint. It claims the toy's design renders it ineffective as a secret listening device. `It doesn't work through walls, doors or around corners . . . [and] it's got a red, six-inch microphone, just to make sure everyone can see it,' Alley said. The FTC declined to say whether it was conducting an investigation.