By Robert McGarvey
On a May 5th United flight from San Diego to Houston, an unnamed female passenger in first class entered the bathroom where she noticed a blinking blue light. She did not know what it was but she took the device to the flight crew. United Corporate Security subsequently determined it was a video recording device.
Then, per a document compiled by the FBI, “After viewing the information on the device, a male was caught on video installing the device in the first class lavatory of this particular flight.” Apparently the man’s face wasn’t visible but – using his clothing and also jewelry – an ID was made. The arrest of Choon Ping Lee, who works for Halliburton, an oil field service company, followed.
Creeped out? Justifiably. But here’s the grim reality: throughout your travels, very probably you are being spied on. In some cases it’s by state sponsored security forces. In other cases it’s by miscellaneous creeps, perverts, and miscreants.
Does it really matter who? Is it more comforting to know the Chinese government has eavesdropping devices in your Beijing hotel room – which it probably does and it also probably has your cellphone tapped – than it is to know that your Airbnb host is a perv who has cameras in rooms?
Guess what, it’s nothing new. In 1983 I co-wrote a book called The Complete Spy, which detailed the hundreds of legally available devices that let ordinary citizens spy on their spouses, children, neighbors, co-workers, bosses, you name it. A theme of the book was that our privacy was evaporating and we seemed uninterested in fighting back.
It is much, much worse today.
You don’t have to be Erin Andrews to have your privacy robbed. But a take away from the Andrews caper is that a determined eavesdropper can – with few roadblocks – easily spy on us in hotels. And spying in hotels is surprisingly common
There’s even a claim that a hidden camera was found in a cruise ship cabin.
Why would anyone want to spy on me or you? Who the hell knows.
Some nation states spy compulsively. The Soviet Union and East Germany did it routinely (and if you visited either, you were eavesdropped upon. This is beyond question). Today, Russia ranks high among nations that eavesdrop on foreign visitors. But China does likewise (maybe even more so). The Saudis do too. Ditto the Israelis. But you also hear about the French, Singapore, and many, many more nations. It’s not just nation states however.
As for who else eavesdrops in hotels, it can be anything from a business competitor to a jealous spouse or a just plain weirdo. Remember Gay Talese’s The Voyeur’s Motel, where he documents a motel owner who systematically spied on guests.
Don’t say it can’t happen where you are staying. Especially not because spying has gotten easier.
What’s new today is that eavesdropping has become very cheap and very low skill.
Around $40 will buy you a perfectly good spy camera.
Such cameras are usually wireless and battery powered. It takes essentially no skill to set up a camera.
That’s a scary difference. A generation ago, cameras were expensive but also high maintenance. Now cameras are installed by dropping them in place and, very probably, forgetting about them. Who needs to retrieve something so cheap?
How can you fight back? The good news is that self-defense detection weaponry too is proliferating.
Now for Spy vs. Spy. There is plenty of technology that says it can find hidden eavesdropping technology and that has a prima facie credibility in that these devices typically connect via wiFi and/or Bluetooth. A device, or app, that hunts for Bluetooth and WiFi in the immediate vicinity may well pinpoint a nearby camera.
Some also hunt for a glint from the lens of a hidden camera and they just may find them.
But they may not, too. The better, pricier eavesdropping tools are built to foil the cheap detectors.
Dial up the price of the detector to north of $50, or even better, north of $100 and your odds of finding spy gear escalate.
Experts also recommend an oldfashioned physical inspection. Look for what’s out of place – a blinking blue light in a United lavatory – and you’ll hit the bullseye without any tech.
But even with preventative steps, don’t count on having privacy wherever your travels take you. For 40 years people have asked me what I do to avoid being spied upon. My answer has always been the same: nothing. I assume I may be spied upon, I act accordingly, and if I am spied upon, so be it.
I really cannot think of any surer strategy. Especially not today.