The DIY spy
I’m taking the first, discreet footsteps into my temporary career as an undercover spy, and I already feel a frisson of excitement as I’m buzzed into Q’s real-life workshop. I’m visiting the showroom of Spycatcher Online in London’s Portman Square. Despite the wealth of exciting gadgets inside it’s hardly bustling with customers, but as our guide Julia says when she meets me at the entrance: “People come to us because they have a problem, nobody just stops by on impulse.”
She’s right: this most certainly isn’t Marks & Spencer. Stab-proof vests and Kevlar jackets hang on racks in the corner, beside a monitor streaming a video feed from the camera hidden in the banana plant. There are cabinets devoted to night-vision goggles and display tables filled with gadgets, from tiny audio bugs squirrelled away in packets of chewing gum, to bags of shark repellent – “we don’t get a lot of call for that, but people like to see the real James Bond stuff,” Julia smiles.
Like everybody else who visits this showroom, we’re not here on impulse. We have a problem. And our problem is James Bond. His recent foray into moody realism has stripped him of all the interesting gadgets that made the films fun, and we miss them. We miss them so much we’ve set out to find some of our own: to discover the reality behind the murky world of surveillance and establish whether this off-the-shelf snooping arsenal actually works, what sort of people buy this stuff, and the uses it’s put to when there aren’t megalomaniacs with lairs beneath volcanoes to be stopped.
Listen and learn
I leave the showroom laden with £1,500-worth of spy gadgets and return to the office, where everybody clusters around, eager to see what sort of miniature rocket launchers and jet packs I’ve brought back. It’s fair to say there’s an air of disappointment when the first thing out of the bag is a harmless-looking three-way plug adapter.
Despite appearances, the ordinary-looking adapter is actually a listening bug. Implanted inside is a SIM card, and a powerful microphone capable of picking up conversations within 30ft, assuming it isn’t placed near something noisy, such as a radio, or there isn’t a great deal of background noise. Listening in simply requires you to dial the SIM card’s number, meaning you can plug in the adapter at your office, go to the US for the weekend, and still listen to everything being said at that board meeting you weren’t invited to. Or, in this ironic case, listen to the PC Pro office complain about the listening bug that isn’t working.
I’d borrowed Spycatcher’s demonstration model, meaning Julia had the number, so when I phoned up to complain it was broken she simply dialled in to prove it wasn’t. “Perhaps, you better unplug it,” came the nervous recommendation from my editor. I do so, still slightly in awe. She reassures me she listened in only for a few seconds to make sure it was operational, but finding out somebody was listening to every word we said is still enough to put the office slightly on edge. It’s also occasionally enough to get people fired.
“If people are having problems at work, it’s always nice to have that proof,” says a spokesperson for manufacturer SpyWorld. “Mostly, it’s abuse, or bullying, sometimes racial or sexist. But we get a lot of people who are having those sorts of problems and need something to back up their case.”
Are conversations recorded in such an underhand manner admissible in evidence? “Oh yeah, but it depends on the situation. Most of the time if somebody’s fiddling the books in a bank, often the bank is more interested in finding out who’s doing it than making a big scandal. It looks bad. Most of the time, it will collect the evidence then quietly confront whoever’s doing it – let it be known they might want to find another place to work.”