The Spy Who Bugged Me

Amateur Sleuths Have Their Day

Woody Allen once joked that he cheated on a metaphysics exam by peering into the soul of the kid sitting next to him. Like a lot of fantasies, though, X-ray voyeurism would probably turn ugly if it became real. After all, it might be cool to know what lurks in your classmate's soul, but what about, say, your dentist's?

Undaunted, legions of armchair peepers are turning to electronic gizmos that help them eavesdrop on their friends and neighbors. Blame it on Linda Tripp or The Truman Show, high-tech spy tech is hip, affordable, and, yes, coming to a toilet near you.

Gregg Graison runs Quark, a shop and lab near Gramercy that specializes in surveillance, security, and counter-terrorism wares. For the past 10 years, he's been catering mainly to a clientele of corporate executives and CIA cronies who want everything from night-vision goggles to tear-gas-spraying BMWs.

But these days, Quark's dealing with a lot more than bulletproof umbrellas. Ever since the recent rash of "nanny scares," as Graison calls them, concerned parents have been shelling out for flea-sized video cameras that can be drilled into a Playstation or sewn into the belly of a Tinky Winky doll.

Spy cams and related wares are also infiltrating the arts community, he says. To prepare for the upcoming Cannes Film Festival, producers have stopped by Quark for the latest bug detectors, just in case they're pitching a big idea and worrying that there's a mike in their crème brûlée. A few rap artists, whom Graison won't name, have also allegedly paid a visit, expressing concern that someone on the outside might be trying to cop their new tracks.

It's unlikely that a hot-wired Puffy track will pop up on the next Vanilla Ice album, but amateur eavesdropping has indeed become the late-'90s answer to ham radio. For about $100, anyone can leave Radio Shack with a scanner that can easily—and illegally—pick up cordless telephone conversations.

Some scanner hobbyists have been saying for years that the real thrill is not snooping on phone calls, but rather on emergency broadcasts from police and ambulances. Rich Barron, who runs a site devoted to Stupid Scanner Tricks (exo.com/˜rbarron)—such as tuning in to McDonald's drive-thru systems—says scanning can even make him feel heroic.

"I've seen a couple suspect vehicles...as I was driving or listening from home," says Barron, "and have pointed the police in the right direction each time when the suspects may have otherwise gotten away clean."

Of course, a lot of scanner junkies simply want to know who's milking the gecko to 976-FARM. Though the House passed a bill last year that makes it illegal to alter a scanner in order to pick up cellular or digital calls, Congress doesn't have much say about how you snoop around your home. That's why it's cake to boot up something like PC Patrol, a desktop-based system that turns a computer into your own obedient HAL.

A wireless system of motion detectors and digital cameras hooks up to the system, so that if a burglar breaks in, everything will be automatically recorded onscreen. There's even a special software program that blurts out customized alarm sound files when triggered: "It is simplicity itself," the PC Patrol site (pcpatrol.com) reads, "to record your voice, friends' voices, party noises, your kids at play, TV voices, telephone calls and conversations, the toilet flushing...you get the picture!"

We do, thanks. And if a hearty flush isn't enough to scare away a robber, there's always the prospect of a toilet cam. Across the Web, these little spy jobs have become quite a sensation (though presumably not for the people who had to install them). Rest assured, however, that the pot shots are likely a big scam; as far as I know, no one's perfected a wireless, waterproof digital camcorder that can withstand that kind of action. Yet.

 
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