Sneakiest Spy Devices That Are Actually Real

Tune in for some devious spy devices that actually exist!

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From the devilishly devious to the outright absurd, let’s take a close look at some of the secret ways people invade your privacy, and the gadgets they use to do so.

Suspicion In Somalia

Back in May 2016, something happened in Somalia’s capital of Mogadishu that rocked the entire country to its foundations. It was a clear day, and everything seemed completely ordinary until a single bird flying overhead crashed to the ground.

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Most people didn’t care, but one man went over to see if it was still alive and got the shock of his life. The bird definitely wasn’t alive, and it also definitely wasn’t a bird. Rather than an animal made of flesh-and-bone, the man was looking at some sort of metallic gadget in the shape of a bird.

Unlike a bird however, it had no feathers, and two battered propellors were attached to the front of its wings. It didn’t take long for more people to gather round, wondering what the heck it was.

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One theory quickly rose to the top: it was a surveillance drone of some kind, and it had been spying on the people of Mogadishu disguised as a bird of prey. Who would want to spy on them though? The USA? Supposedly, there is a secret US drone base somewhere in Somalia, and it’d make sense to have it near the capital.

However, US drones are larger and far more advanced than the one that crashed in Mogadishu. And thanks to advances in tech over the last few decades, they certainly don’t use propellors to fly! A more likely answer is NISA, Somalia’s own intelligence agency, which is headquartered in Mogadishu. NISA could’ve been surveying the city for terrorist activity.

But there have been a whole host of unsavory allegations thrown at the organization over the years; from harassment claims to those of full-blown corruption. So, people weren’t inclined to immediately jump to their defense.

In fact, the fallen drone raised all kinds of questions about personal privacy. If you can’t even trust that birds are real, what can you trust? And it’s not just happening in Somalia either. Over in the US, the University of Maryland have created a bird-drone that’s so realistic it actually got attacked by a hawk!

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And over in Russia, they’ve developed a much bigger and more advanced owl-shaped combat drone! This thing doesn’t just spy on people, it can guide artillery with a laser from its weird electronic head.

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Stranger Danger

Airbnbs can be great, cheap alternatives to hotels when you want a short overnight stay somewhere. But there’s always going to be a certain level of risk associated with sleeping in a complete stranger’s house. When Max Vest and his girlfriend decided to spend the night in a Miami-based Airbnb, they found this out the hard way.

Their host seemed nice enough, and he had great ratings on the website, so they shrugged it off when he introduced himself under a different name than the one he'd used over text. They couldn’t shrug off what happened next though.

Night came, and Max turned the lights off ready to go to sleep. Before he closed his eyes though, he noticed two small lights on the far side of the room. They looked like phone chargers from afar, but after getting closer he realized they were actually tiny cameras, set up to record the bed.

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Max immediately yanked the memory cards from the devices, pocketed them, and he and his girlfriend both left the premises. After reporting the incident, Airbnb suspended the host from the site. And sure enough, police investigating the matter found footage of past guests on the memory cards.

Luckily for Max and his girlfriend, they’d managed to escape unrecorded. But the sinister tale highlights an insidious privacy problem with the whole service. Indeed, this isn’t an isolated case; hidden cameras have been found in hundreds of Airbnbs. They’ve been snuck inside screwheads, hidden in electrical sockets, and even stashed in the lids of stray coffee cups!

Airbnb actually allows recording in communal areas, but never in bedrooms or bathrooms. And it’s against the law in many countries to secretly film anything unless the film is justifiable and in the public interest.

So, how can you ever be sure you’re not being secretly watched? TikTok user “malwaretech” suggests shining a flashlight onto any device that could hold a hidden camera before you sleep anywhere new. It’s surprisingly effective!

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Spying Stones

You’ve heard of stepping-stones but what about spying stones? They’re real and they’re just as terrifyingly ridiculous as they sound. The Russian Ministry of Defense have been working on the covert surveillance devices, and they’re not just stones with cameras in them.

They’re robotic and come fitted with wheels too, so an operator from up to a mile away can maneuver them remotely with little risk of being caught. You just place the fake rock, retreat to a safe distance, and remotely drive it into position. When needed, the camera pops out from the top of the device and is ready to record whatever it’s pointed at.

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But the Russians aren’t the first to come up with this idea; they actually took it from the British, who used a similar tactic against them back in 2007.

Russian double agents had been transmitting data to the rock, which subsequently relayed it to Britain. However, a Brit was caught checking on the rock, leading to four British diplomats being expelled from the eastern country.

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And as long ago as the Cold War, the CIA used fake tree stumps to eavesdrop on Russia in this manner, too.

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Lightbulb Listener

There’s a relatively simple way of hacking ordinary lightbulbs to become covert surveillance devices. All you need is a telescope and a little gadget called an “electro-optical sensor”. In basic terms, electro-optical sensors convert light into electronic signals that can be read by a machine.

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So, if you attach one of these sensors to a telescope, it can be used to read light signals from afar. By focusing the telescope onto a lightbulb, the sensor can pick up tiny vibrations on the surface of the bulb. These vibrations are caused by conversation or music, and the sensor converts them into digital information.

Using a special program, this information can then be translated back into the original music or even human speech! Which means somebody with the know-how could aim a telescope right through your window from a hundred feet away, point it at your lightbulb, and eavesdrop on every word you say.

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Fortunately, this hasn’t ever been used in real life and is instead currently confined to an Israeli university’s research. But still it’s been field tested and proven to work.

Bugged Bugs

Spies will always use pretty much any means possible to get the job done. And that includes creating mind-controlled cyborg insects. In the past, the US military has installed electrodes, batteries, and even tiny video cameras onto moths and beetles to turn them into miniature surveillance devices.

Furthermore, this has been done in such a way that an operator can literally control flying insects like drones! Scientists would insert miniscule brain probes into the insects during their pupa stage, so that the ultra-light implants would naturally integrate into the body of the developing bug. This allows the insects to be remotely operated.

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At the push of a button, the operator sends an electrical impulse into the implants, which forcefully changes the creature’s direction. So, when fitted with a camera or listening device, they’re transformed into, well, bug bugs.

The surveillance devices can be attached to the backs of the little creatures, and though it looks pretty obvious up close, you probably wouldn’t notice one of these guys from a few feet away.

And they can even stream footage directly to a smartphone! If that doesn’t freak you out enough though, robotic bugs are being developed too. Though still only conceptual, they wouldn’t just be able to record you, but also land on you and take DNA samples!

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Theremin’s Bug

To write an article on spying and not mention Leon Theremin would be as bad as discussing the best ice cream flavors without mentioning chocolate. That’s because he created one of the most successful spying devices ever used against the US government.

Theremin was a Russian inventor who was imprisoned in 1938, suspected of crimes against the Soviet state. While imprisoned, he was tasked with inventing a bug so sophisticated it could go undetected in Spaso House, Moscow, where the US ambassador to the Soviet Union lived.

That was child’s play for Theremin. By the end of the Second World War, he’d finalized his device and it was hidden inside a great carved seal, deviously given to US officials as a symbol of friendship.

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The plan worked. The US took it and hung it in his study in Spaso House, near Moscow’s American embassy, unwittingly throwing away his privacy for seven whole years! It wasn’t until 1952 that the bug was finally discovered. British broadcasters had reported hearing voices on their radios whenever they were near the American embassy.

Suspecting some kind of bug, the US ambassador searched his place and eventually found it, to great uproar. It could only stay hidden for so long because it was tiny and needed no electrical supply, making it very difficult to detect.

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The exact physics are very complicated, but it essentially worked by picking up miniscule vibrations made by people’s voices. Soviet spies would hide outside of the ambassador’s house and fire a radio signal at it, which would activate the device and cause it to transmit one back.

With this set up, the Soviets could hear everything that was being said. Pretty damn clever, especially considering it was invented over 70 years ago!

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Privacy Prevention

Back in 2013, Edward Snowden, a former employee of the US National Security Agency, leaked a ton of highly classified documents in one of the biggest intelligence breaches in history. Arguably the most worrying of these documents detailed a computer program called XKeyscore.

The program, developed by US intelligence, allows the user access to a person’s private emails, browsing history, and more. And all it needs to work is some basic identifying information, like a person’s email or Internet Protocol address.

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Not only that, but Snowden claimed the program could wiretap anybody, from a federal judge to the president themselves, in just a couple of clicks! So, essentially, anything you do online can be tracked without your permission or knowledge. The program was officially designed to catch criminals, and it’s true.

As of 2008, 300 extremists had been captured because of it. But at what cost? Apparently, 41 billion records were collected and stored over a single month in 2012, which is an absolutely colossal amount of data. And let’s be real, the vast majority of that data won’t have belonged to criminals.

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The whole idea that some sneaky government agent could be snooping on everything I do without me ever knowing about it gives me the heebie-jeebies. But then again, if my privacy is the price to pay for stopping hundreds of extremist attacks around the world, maybe I should be less concerned.

Transit Tracker

Back in 2010, Californian student Afifi was with a friend taking his car to the garage for an oil change when he noticed a wire sticking out from beneath the back of his vehicle. Confused, he reached under, grabbed it, and pulled out a pair of very strange devices. One looked like some sort of battery pack, and the bigger one seemed to be a transmitter of some kind.

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Wasting no time, the two friends posted the find on a Reddit forum and people’s opinions were pretty unanimous. It was a tracking device, and not only that, but one used by law enforcement. Young Afifi was being tracked by the FBI! And he was pretty sure he knew why. It turns out that the student’s father was a religious leader and had recently passed away.

After his passing, Afifi had been contacted by the FBI several times with a slew of racist questions. So, when he didn’t cooperate, they must’ve planted the tracker on his car. Scarily, it was actually legal in the US back then for police to secretly place GPS trackers on any vehicle they wanted even if it was parked in a private driveway!

Thankfully, that’s not the case anymore. The story doesn’t end there though, just days after the Reddit post, Afifi noticed two suspicious looking people examining his parked car. He went out to confront them, and two SUVs pulled up carrying police officers in bullet-proof vests!

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They demanded the tracking device back, and Afifi was happy to comply. Turns out, the authorities had been tracking the student on suspicion of him being involved in extremist activities. It was proved that he wasn’t and after a short interrogation they let him go.

But considering neither Afifi nor his father had ever even been accused of being involved in any sort of extremism, this whole saga highlighted some huge surveillance and discrimination issues in the US police force. Who’d have thought that US cops could be so thoroughly undermined by Reddit, of all things!

Pidge-cam

The idea of using bird drones isn’t new. In fact, actual birds were being used for covert spy missions as long ago as World War 1! Carrier pigeons have been used for thousands of years to send written messages, because they’re easily trained and will attempt to fly home wherever they’re released; hence why they’re sometimes known as Homing Pigeons.

However, the German Army came up with a novel new use for the pigeons during the First World War. They strapped special cameras onto them and sent them flying over the battlefield on reconnaissance operations!

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The concept’s not as ridiculous as it sounds, either. The cameras were light enough for the birds to fly without issue, and the pigeons were incredibly reliable. Hundreds of thousands of the feathered flyers were sent through enemy fire over the course of the war, and a whopping 95% of them completed their missions.

In fact, they’ve earnt more medals of honor than any other animal! So, next time you think of turning your nose up at one of the “flying rats”, think about how many medals of honor you’ve got.

Kitty Control

In the history of espionage, some ideas have worked perfectly, and others, not so much. One of the CIA’s craziest plans was to convert cats into spies. Long story short, in the 1960s, they got a poor cat from somewhere and operated on it to insert batteries and a recording device into it.

A ¾ inch-long transmitter was embedded into the base of the cat’s skull, and a microphone in its ear canal. As for the antenna, it was woven into its tail. After this horrific procedure, it was then deemed necessary to train the cat. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t too responsive, and would frequently run off to find food.

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In an even more twisted move, the CIA operated on the cat again, this time to “address its hunger issues”, whatever that means. All in all, the cruel project ended up costing somewhere between a gobsmacking $10 to $20 million!

After five long years, the franken-kitty was sent off on its first mission, to eavesdrop on a couple of men outside the Soviet embassy in Washington. The cat was released, ran across the road towards them, and was immediately hit by a taxi. The project was deemed a total failure and canceled.

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Goofy Gadgets

If you weren’t already convinced that James Bond is more fact than fiction, there are a few gadgets that will leave no doubt in your mind. There were shoes kitted out with a hidden microphone and transmitter, which looked like they had been ripped straight from a movie.

The shoe belonged to an American diplomat in the 1960s and was secretly modified by the Soviets when he sent it off for repair. That must’ve been a sole destroying discovery.

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Another impressive item was the “buttonhole camera” and was created all the way back in the 1880s Germany. Designed to be tucked behind your shirt, the camera would take photos through a buttonhole.

It could only hold six pics at a time though, so you’d have to be very selective. Operating the clunky contraption involved pulling a string to release the shutter, so who knows how anyone actually got away with using it.

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Finally, there's a device that admittedly looks more like it belongs in Ghostbusters than Goldeneye. It doesn’t slay ghosts though, it’s a KGB bug detector, and was revolutionary when it was invented in the 1970s.

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That’s because unlike bug detectors before, it could find bugs even when they were switched off. Some big disks attached to the machine sent radio waves out that could read energy emitted from batteries whether they were in use or not. Pretty handy, though it still wouldn’t have found Theremin’s battery-less bug!

The Real Eye of Sauron

Even if you’re not a fan of Lord of the Rings, you’ve probably heard of the Eye of Sauron, the demonic all-seeing eye on top of that big tower in Mordor. Back in 1964, the CIA came up with an idea to spy on China that was strikingly similar.

Communist China had just tested a bomb that produced a suspiciously nuclear-looking mushroom cloud, and the US were worried they’d cracked the secrets of the atom. So, they decided the logical course of action would be to install a giant surveillance device on top of one of the tallest mountains in the Himalayas.

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From there, it would have a perfect view of China’s test site. Fast forward a few months and the CIA had assembled an elite team for the job, chosen for their mountain climbing and scientific prowess, a pretty niche combo. In the fall of 1965, they began their expedition. The mountain they had to climb is called Nanda Devi, in India.

Only six people had ever reached the 25,000ft tall peak before them, and three of them perished on the way back down! And they hadn’t been lugging a huge 40lb surveillance package along the way. After days of struggling up the mountain with the cumbersome device, a storm suddenly hit, and conditions got so bad that the team had to abandon the expedition.

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The next spring, they returned to finish the job, but the surveillance device was gone! It turned out an avalanche had ripped through the area and buried the device somewhere far below. Which was not ideal, considering it was made from radioactive material.

So, the CIA arranged a search party for the original device, while the team of climbers were given a new device and tasked with climbing a neighboring mountain. This time, they made it to the top and installed it successfully!

While it only lasted three months before malfunctioning, enough data was gathered to indicate that China did not in fact have long range nukes. As for the lost radioactive surveillance package, it was never recovered.

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The Private Spy

North and South Korea have a long and bitter history, and with both opposing states being so close to one another, there’s been a helluva lot of spying from both sides. In the 1990s though, South Korea conducted what could be considered the most ridiculous espionage mission in history.

South Korean agent Park Chae-seo, codenamed Black Venus, was chosen for the operation. Posing as a disgruntled former military officer turned businessman, he managed to organize a meeting with then North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il.

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首相官邸ホームページ, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Kim thought they were there to discuss filming TV commercials in the state, but Park had other intentions such as secretly recording Kim with a tiny device hidden inside his willy-winkle.

Before the meeting began, Park took a micro-recorder, and he shoved it right up there. Amazingly, it worked, and Park managed to sit through the whole meeting without giving the game away.

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What’s more, he got valuable information from the dictator about a plot to influence the South Korean elections and was able to foil it! Forget the long game, it’s all about playing the schlong game.

If you enjoyed investigating these sneaky spy devices you might want to read this article about the most incredible spy devices in History. Thanks for reading!

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