Surveillance Devices Hot Again
By Margaret Webb Pressler
Just as the case of Boston au pair Louise Woodward quickly boosted sales of "nannycams" tiny video cameras concealed inside teddy bears or clocks security industry experts are betting that Linda Tripp's clandestine taping of conversations with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky will be a big boon to the audio surveillance business.
"Any time there's media play, it does play a part in sales," said Bob Crowley, owner of the Spy Outlet, a Buffalo, N.Y., retail shop and mail order business for high-tech surveillance equipment. "It's like putting up billboards."
Yet in power towns like Washington, with lots of lawyers, dealmaking and mistrust, the surveillance industry has been growing for several years, particularly as technology has allowed for smaller and cheaper recorders, microphones and cameras.
"Thank God for paranoia in our business. It's fabulous," said Don Ugent, co-owner of Buy Right Distributors, which sells surveillance equipment on the Internet.
Security experts say popular listening devices ranges from microcassette recorders sold at Circuit City for $100 to infrared laser sensors that cost thousands of dollars and can "hear" conversations through glass. The boom, they say, has largely been driven by executives and lawyers who are increasingly recording telephone calls and personal meetings to have an indisputable record of events.
But it's not all business. There's also growing interest in the listening devices for other reasons, some of them personal. Concealed microphones and tape recorders are being used by police officers to prove their versions of encounters with suspects; workers trying to prove sexual harassment; parents checking up on their kids; and suspicious husbands and wives, experts say.
A bit of a paranoid bunch themselves, a number of security experts expressed not the slightest surprise yesterday that Tripp, a former White House aide, would have secretly recorded conversations with her friend Lewinsky to gather evidence that the former intern had a sexual relationship with President Clinton. Apparently, security experts are accustomed to friends' doing that kind of thing.
And the fact that it happened in Washington makes total sense to Kenneth Sim, co-owner of Spy Supply, which operates an equipment store and mail order business based in Indiana. Sim said Washington is one of his best markets for amplifier microphones that look like Montblanc pens but attach to mini-recorders. Though the area is much smaller, he sells as many of those pens here as he does in New York or California.
"That says there's a lot more people walking around with pen microphones in Washington than in New York," he said. "So watch out when you see a pen sticking out from a purse."
But the surveillance business is certainly not a free-for-all; government agencies have been cracking down on the sale and use of illegal bugging devices. Laws governing the consent someone needs to record his own conversation, in person or over the phone, vary among states some require the consent of only one person, others require that all parties agree. And almost without exception, it is illegal to surreptitiously record the conversations of a group or another person.
When first asked about his company's inventory of listening devices, Crowley responded, "We don't sell listening devices." He went on to say, however, that he sells a variety of miniature recorders and tiny, easy-to-hide microphones.
"It's definitely a gray area," said Heath Chilcoate, senior account executive at the Counter Spy Shop in downtown Washington.
The presence of a chain of Counter Spy Shops suggests that surveillance is becoming so commonplace that now there's a developing market for equipment that detects such devices. The Counter Spy Shop, for example, not only sells rather stiff, blue-and-white silk ties that conceal miniature cameras, it stocks beeperlike devices that Chilcoate says will vibrate in the presence of a nearby recording device.
Counter-surveillance equipment will become more important, Chilcoate said, as secret taping "is going on every day." It just hasn't gotten much attention until now.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company