Spy Camera Detectors
How do they work?
Along with, “Which is the best?” These are questions I hear often.
Spy Camera Detector History
Covert cameras have been around since the 1800’s. Interestingly, as soon as photography developed, people wanted to surreptitiously take photos. From voyeurs to private eyes, a spycam was the gadget to have. In 1900, movie maker, George Albert Smith, glamorized optical voyeurism in his movie, As Seen Through a Telescope. We will take a historical shortcut here and leave the discovery of these early film spy cameras to auctioneers and collectors.
Our spy camera detection history begins with the advent of CCD and CMOS behind the lens. These are the electronic sensors within modern digital spy cameras which capture images. With a little knowledge—aided by some inexpensive gadgets—you can detect them!
Modern Spy Cameras Discovery Methods
This type of spy camera detector shines a laser light on the CCD and CMOS material behind the lens and it scintillates. Government-level and high-end $$$$ detectors use laser light to create this scintillation. It is this generated light that gives away a hidden camera’s location.
He described one of his favorite spy camera detection techniques for me…
“Use a small intense flashlight to illuminate suspect items. Looking right along the edge of the flashlight, a glint will be seen from the lens, often it is green. Move the flashlight an inch or so from your line of sight and the glint will go away. Works better than the blinkies which are tricked by doorknobs, etc. Here is a graphic illustrating why cameras act like retroreflectors for objects in their field of view. All rays that hit the sensor (film or a semiconductor sensor array) and go back toward the lens are directed exactly back to the flashlight (and your eye). One can easily check this out by propping a cellphone up across the room. For cell phones with more than one camera, the reflections will behave differently. It is necessary to be within the field of view of the camera to see the glint.”
A 1971 scientific paper which explores laser retroreflection is detail can be found here.
The Worldwide Spy Camera Pandemic
Today’s spy camera craze makes hidden camera detection a daily necessity now. In South Korea the problem is so rampant there were several public street protests. The government responded by performing public toilet inspections.
The average individual in other countries can’t count on a government response like South Korea’s. They have to rely on themselves for protection by detection. Due to the high cost of professional spycam detection devices, one has to count on a slightly different, and less expensive, detection technique–red blinky LEDs. This technique sort of works, some of the time. Blinky lights highlight reflective surfaces, like glass and plastic lenses.
Before You Buy Any Spycam Detector
Be aware spycam detectors do not come with detailed instructions. They are just helpful tools. Like any tool, they are not very helpful if you don’t have the skills to use one. Step Number One is educating yourself. Not knowing what spycams are out there, and where they hide, is dangerous. An uneducated inspection creates a false sense of security. You don’t want that. Invest in a little education first.
Detection using red blinky-lights is more labor intensive than laser based systems. Why? Because lots of things reflect light. Aside from seeing a galaxy of false positives, searching can also become fatiguing very quickly (eye strain), especially if more than a simple bathroom is being inspected.
Even with these limitations hidden camera detection inspections can be surprisingly successful.
Buying a blinky-light is only half of the success recipe. The other half is learning what to look for and where to look before you begin your search. We’ll cover some of that here.
Note: This technique does not work if the spy camera is hidden within a black plastic enclosure, like a tissue dispenser. You need an infrared flashlight and viewer to see through black plastic spy camera enclosures.
Types of Spy Cameras
Knowing the different types of covert spy cameras will help you find them, and catch the culprit. For example, if the device is battery powered, or requires an SD card, chances are good the person will eventually return to retrieve the device, or swap it out with a fresh device. These are the broad categories…
- Images internally stored, battery powered. (Typically pens, key fobs, cell phones, clothing hooks, and bathroom items. May use motion or sound detection to conserve battery power.)
- Images internally stored, continuously powered. (Typically found in lamp fixtures (and flood lamps), radios, clocks, USB chargers, or anything mains powered, including the outlets themselves.)
- Images transmitted wirelessly, battery powered. (Typically small black boxes, drones and cell phones. Short transmission time unless the device is left plugged into their charger.)
- Images transmitted wirelessly, continuously powered. (Typically lamp fixtures, radios, clocks, USB chargers. Unlimited transmission time, usually Wi-Fi, occasionally we still find older models transmitting via analog modulation.)
- Images transmitted via cable (Typically this type of spy camera is always on. It may be hidden in any type of enclosure, or behind a pinhole in the ceiling or wall. It may connect directly to a display screen, a recorder, a remotely-located transmitter, or the internet.
Selecting a Spy Camera Detector
Marketplaces like Amazon and Alibaba are littered with blinky-light hidden camera detectors for sale. Prices range from lunch money to hundreds of dollars. Picking one for personal use can be confusing. This can be eliminated by separating the cameras into categories with an explanation of their capabilities…
- The One Trick Ponies — They just blink. You look through a colored piece of plastic to look for the light reflecting back to your eye. The plastic will match the color of the LEDs to filter out other wavelengths of light. The most popular color is red, perhaps to give a “laser” feel to the experience. These are the best choice for the average consumer. Watch this video to see one being used. One Trick Ponies are also available as smartphone apps for iOS and Android devices. The reviews seem mixed. Our tests were mixed as well.
- The Me-Too Devices — In addition to blinky lights, me-too devices add other spybusting capabilities. Depending upon the device, these added extras, like radio-frequency detection, may be helpful. Examples include: Determining if the camera is transmitting the image elsewhere; detecting certain (but not all) voice only transmitters (if they are currently transmitting); and magnetic field detection for finding GPS trackers adhered to a vehicle with a magnet. These are not professional level pieces of equipment, and don’t come with a professional TSCM technician. Beware, they can provide two unintended outcomes.
1. Confusion, due to false positives.
2. A false sense of security, which is worse than a healthy sense of caution.
- The We-See TV Devices — Some spy camera detectors focus on letting you see what the camera sees. “Hey, this sounds easy,” I hear you say. Don’t be fooled. It’s old tech aimed at analog modulation transmitters (AM & FM). These days hidden cameras are generally Wi-Fi enabled for direct or internet distribution of their signals. The Me-Too devices might detect these, but these We-Sees won’t see.
Beware of inflated sales claims in the ads. There are no “totally” effective do-it-all spy detection gadgets. And, some claims like this one are even incomprehensible: “Cameras which uses optical cameras are not detectable. Whether you are in unfamiliar places that are susceptible to snooping such as hotel room, change room or a toilet room. Imagine the comfort of having a handy tool to ensure your safety.” (What!?!?)
Situational awareness, knowledge about spy cameras, and the right spy camera detector will allow you to conduct a good, quick search for covert video devices.
Let’s say you decided on buying the One-Trick Pony type of spy camera detector. Prices for the same unit can be wildly different. Sometimes, I’m not sure who to fear most… the video voyeurs, or the people selling these detectors.
You’re a savvy shopper. You know spy camera detectors are nothing more than a battery, LEDs, a red piece of plastic encased in a black piece of plastic. They all blink. They all serve the same purpose. “Hummmm, which one should I choose?”
Need a hint? Remember what I said about eyestrain. A large viewing area is easy on the eyes. Now go shopping, and if I saved you any money, send me a couple of packs of M&Ms.
You Found a Spycam… now what?
When you find a covert spy camera you have a few choices about how to handle it, depending upon the location.
Spycams in Publicly Accessible Areas (restroom, changing areas, gyms, shower areas, etc.)
- Document your find. Take pictures with your cell phone.
- Call the police. Ask for a detective with electronic forensics experience to come to your location.
- Do not touch the device or leave it unattended. (Hey, you’ve just established a crime scene!)
- Once your statement has been taken by the detective, talk to an attorney. If you have been filmed, you have been damaged.
Spycams in Private Residences
You can follow the steps above, that’s fine. But, you won’t have the same legal recourse as you do against a business or other organization. Resolving these cases require a perp in custody.
You are dealing with a pervert. Perverts don’t give up when their covert cameras are found. They do it again and get sneakier each time. The only way to stop them is to stomp on their toes, legally. You need to collect evidence, but only if it is safe for you to do so.
Actual spy camera detection is just the first step. If you have a suspect in mind, keep a log of their actions. Suspicious movements, especially if repeated, contribute to your circumstantial evidence.
Example: Repeatedly visiting a bathroom just before or after it is used by potential victims. Too many visits by a landlord raises a red flag as well. If possible, jot down where your suspect keeps their computer, phone, and storage media (USB sticks, external drives, cloud storage, etc.). Knowing password and cloud account information is very helpful once the police are called.
If you control the space, you have a chance of documenting them in the act. Consider setting up your own covert camera to see who comes to service their device while you are away. While this can be a do-it-yourself job, I would recommend hiring a private investigator to assist. They have the equipment and know-how, and likely know the right attorney to recommend to you when the time comes. They can also act as your expert witness if it comes to that. Either route you choose…
- Do not record audio if you are unsure about your local laws.
- Do not place your camera where it views expectation-of-privacy areas (bathroom interiors, showers, etc.). You just want to show who goes in there and when. Two wrongs don’t make a right, as a judge would say.
Once you have enough evidence documented, contact an attorney for assistance going forward.
Murray Associates evaluations and recommendations are based solely on our client’s best interests.
Kevin D. Murray CPP, CISM, CFE, CDPSE is a business counterespionage consultant and TSCM specialist with over four decades of experience.
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