The DIY spy

Somebody to watch over you

Plugs with bugs are all well and good, but there’s no doubt the sexy end of surveillance is associated with cameras. There’s a dazzling array available, from those camouflaged in handbags and smoke alarms, to the more sophisticated types employed by law-enforcement agencies that sit in lunchboxes and at the bottom of bins, peering out through optically-corrected plastic at the target house across the road.

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I decide to cover both ends of the spectrum, starting with the cheap and cheerful Marlin Spy Pen, which costs a little less than £30. Slightly bulkier than an ordinary pen, the Spy Pen’s manufacturer boasts that it houses the world’s smallest digital video recorder and is capable of capturing colour video at a resolution of 640 x 480 pixels. The package also houses 4GB of flash memory, a battery offering around three hours of recording time, and a microphone that can pick up sound at 15ft, although nothing you’d depend on in court in our experience.

After the aesthetic disappointment of the plug adapter, the Spy Pen reignites the office’s enthusiasm for Bondesque gadgets, especially after I wander around the building, tapping the pen against my chin and recording random small talk. Unfortunately, my attempt at acting casual achieved only blurry pictures, since the pen’s scan rate struggled to keep up with the constant movement. Sobered by this utter failure, I instead place it in a stationery holder on a friend’s desk, where it sits unmolested and unremarked upon for half-an-hour before I decide to collect it. Revelations about favourite teas aside, I didn’t glean any other secrets from the Spy Pen, but for £30 it certainly earns its keep. It writes quite nicely, too, which is a bonus.

The £631 buttonhole camera system, however, is a different proposition. The lens is a mere 4.3mm across, but capable of recording at 720 x 480 pixels at 25fps, plenty enough to capture a Formula One boss in flagrante, for example. The camera comes with screw-on buttons, meaning all you have to do is push it through an eyelet in a shirt, attach a button for disguise and hey presto, you’re wired. The camera plugs into a video recorder about the size of a box of matches, which takes SD cards, and acts as remote control, screen, and as a 60-minute power supply. Larger battery packs can be fitted to give up to five hours of recording time, or a wireless unit attached should you wish to stream the feed to a monitor within 100m.

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I borrow a button-up coat from a colleague and rush out to a hastily-arranged lunch with a friend. Sadly, the camera’s sparkling performance is let down by my own inept spydom. As we sit down and begin to chat, I can’t resist the desire to readjust the camera, or fiddle with the screen. My manner changes as I wonder if the camera is still pointing in the right direction now that the object of my surveillance has shifted position, and I find myself adopting ridiculous postures to get a better view. I needn’t have worried. It turns out the camera was pointed at the ceiling anyway. Still, in those brief moments when it happened to fall into place it’s clearly an impressive piece of kit, with stunning sound and picture quality for something so small.

Scan-dalous behaviour

I leave the world of covert filming to Donal MacIntyre and begin brandishing a gaudy purple wand around the office. If James Bond had pulled one of these from his tuxedo, he’d have been laughed out of MI6, but the DocuPen RC-800 is an impressive handheld scanner, and we plan to prove it.

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