Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Equipment: Spying on the Cheap

When engaged in the espionage hobby, the main obstacle is equipment. Since we are individuals, and not huge agency with undisclosed budgets, it can be difficult to find well-priced and useful equipment. Take the spy camera finder, for instance. Clearly a useful gadget, but one that shouldn't be as expensive as it is.

There are few sources that we can tap into. DealExtreme is definitely worth a look. RF detectors (bug detectors) that typically sell for $40 - 100 range go for under $15 here, including shipping. Both a compact and regular model are available. While ordering, why not buy a whole set of UV lights? The equipment you find here will be very competitively priced, and you might find some surprisingly useful things.

Another gadget that you might have right now is the now ubiquitous mini SD card. If you haven't purchased one, they can easily be found for $10 if you're willing to do some looking. The beauty of this card is that it something agencies would have literally killed for only a decade ago. With 1GB storage, you can easily store maps, one-time pads, or photos on the card using strong, government level encryption. Once you have placed your covert materials on the card, just open the back of your watch, place in the mini SD, and screw back on the cover. Works even better with screw-down case backs (you'll want to get a watch opener though).

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Equipment: Parabolic Microphones

I've mentioned before that I've found less than optimal use from parabolic microphone. Unless experimentation produces new results, that opinion is unlikely to change. The downside with a parbolic is that it is fairly clear you are up to no good, and what you gain from your conspicuousness is rarely something to write HQ about. There are some applications that a parabolic will come in handy, but the bottom line is to limit your expense on what will be a less-than-often-used tool in your kit.

The first parabolic most people consider is the Bionic Ear. It is astonishing that more people don't write complqints about this piece of equipment, if it can even be called that. It appears to be cheaply made - even to the point that the plastic feels cheap - and the technology appears to be cutting edge of the early 70s. The actual microphone has two outputs: one for the headphones one for line-out recording. My line-out never worked, but the headphone jack worked adequately.

The "Ear" comes with special headphones that will shut-off with loud noises to protect your hearing, or perhaps to prevent you from hearing anything interesting. The headphones are emblazoned with an embarrasing "Bionic Ear" graphic. With it on high-gain mode, I could never pick-up a conversation at anything past normal hearing range. Thumps on the floor, noises of people walking, and loud clicks are brought in very well. Alas, these are often not very useful intel. You'll notice that any site selling it will emphasize the fact you can hear things coming through the woods, and that indeed appears to be its strength.

Well, at least we can improve performance with the parabolic itself right? I mean, that's the whole point with a parabolic - take a so-so microphone and make it highly directional and more powerful. The "Bionic" parabolic is unnecessarily large and is completely and utterly insignificant to the use of the product. It adds absolutely nothing. So that extra surcharge to get the parabolic was a contribution to a 70s era merchant, and he thanks you.

Typically the Bionic ear retails for $150 for the total package, and around $100 for the microphone. In case it wasn't clear, I'd recommend you skip it. If you already have one, you can stuff the components into a black project box, cut a small opening for the microphone, and use it as an amplified stethoscope. It will actually help with safecracking, and you can sometimes use it to listen through walls if you don't expect miracles. Actually, the funny thing about this modification is it works almost exactly like the amplifier used by Owen Wilson in "I Spy" (and a surpisingly worthwhile rental).

Recently there are new parabolics on the market that are a good deal cheaper. They retail anywhere between $20 and $70, have a trigger grip and a transparent parabolic. I have a $20 model that I picked up at the very clearly non-espionage oriented Tuesday Morning that was branded for National Geographic. I have also seen a "Espion" model at Sharper Image, and there are many versions that you can find on EBay.

The performance of this parabolic is much better than the vastly more expensive Bionic Ear. It will pick up conversations, but be aware that it often will not improve clarity above normal hearing. What it seems best for is to pick up conversations out a somewhat busy environment. I remember reading somewhere (maybe Amazon?) that it could pick up conversations through windows, but I have yet to see that manifest. However, since it is smaller and the parabolic is mercifully transparent, it is more covert, and is in fact built better than the laughable "Ear". It does have its disadvantages: it does not break down into components, there is no hearing protection, and it has the potential to be viewed as more of a toy than a usefully espionage device (but even some of the spy toys, especially the Spy Ear, have application in certain environments, so I wouldn't let that disuade you). If you have passing interest and a spare $20, you might want to pick one up, but I wouldn't go out of your way and certainly wouldn't spend more than that.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

News: Update on our CloakNet agency

Site News
Your faithful CloakNet team has been attempting to move HQ - both virtually and in the real world - so dispatches from the field have been lacking. We will soon be hosted on a new domain, and (hopefully) will feature a download section including recordings, software, and other materials that you will find useful to add to your toolkit. Our real-life HQ is moving to a better location, and we plan on giving you a full tour. Stay tuned.

Other Random News
It's fairly well known that we are obsessed -truly obsessed - with number stations. Using a one-time pad, various agencies from Mossad to our own CIA transmit information to agents, other groups, or possibly to no one. The transmissions are in sent "in the clear", so anybody with a shortwave can tune in. It's fairly easy too: just move your dial around at the beginning of an hour, and chances are you'll find one. What a great way to play "spy" with the real agencies!

The beauty of these stations (other than their general spookiness) is the fact that they are so very secure. We pretty much know who is sending what, but it really doesn't matter because (a) we don't know the recipients - it could be anyone in the world with a radio, (b) the one-time pad is virtually unbreakable, and (c) the fact that they broadcast on the hour works towards anonymity - we can't tell what's a real message and what is completely fake.

To become obsessed yourself, the best resource is the Spy Numbers page, which includes recordings and even a schedule database to help you find your first one. Let me know what you hear!

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Method: Grappling Hooks

Whenever we see spies in cinema, miniature grappling hooks are ubiquitous. In the real world, they are not used as often as you might think. More often used for "safely" setting off IEDs, climbing with a grapple is avoided due to its risk. At best, a grappling hook only is as strong as whatever it is holding onto. It is likely to slip, so only use a grapple for short heights that may hurt but won't injure if you fall.

The hook you're most likely to run into is the four-prong collapsible version on EBay. Not a bad design, but it will bend quicker than you think. Another version you may not be as familiar with is the Pocket Grapple Hook, something you don't need at all but will want immediately. Be aware that any reviews have said the pocket version still is not good enough to support your weight.

To make your own, some say that the best bet is to get a deep-sea fishing hook, attach it to a chain, and then attach that to a rope. Probably not a good idea. I've never seen a fishing hook that I would trust my life to. If you really want to make one, our friends at Urban Exploration have several good ideas.

Carrying a grappling hook around with you is going to get you into trouble quicker than carrying lockpicks. Unless you've wearing an Omega watch with a grapple built in, it would be best to leave it in your HQ until it is needed.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

General: Global Alerts

I have something very fun today. But first a brief message: I'm a bit behind on my posting schedule, but for good reason. We're trying to move to new domain and change the format a bit. Keep checking back - either we'll have our new site going or I'll finally get some of the reviews and techniques from my Palm and on here.

For everyone's situation room, I have the link for you. A Global Alert center in Hungary has a public aggregator for emergencies throughout the World, or you can zoom in on the States, Europe, and also Hungary itself. A great resource. Start projecting it on your main screen in your hidden fortress as soon as you can.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Equipment: P3 Camera Detector

There are several bug detectors out on the market, and one of the easiest to attain is the P3 Camera Detector, which has even been sold at Radio Shack. The device is very small (about the size of a Pez dispenser) and extremely unattractive. For some reason, it has a "sparkly" sticker decorating it - how that pains me to even type that - and it has emblazoned upon it "Camera Detector" with some silly markings and a P3 icon. Not very professional.

Performance-wise, it does OK. It will detect 1.2 and 2.4 GHz transmitters very handily. As you approach the camera, it chirps faster, making detection extremely easy. Using it against the concealed cameras (e.g. any of the cell-phone cameras on EBay), it will find it every time. It does a passable job against higher-powered microphones, but has a hard time with FM bugs and even things in the 49MHz area.

Regardless of what you find with the detector, it will probably make you feel less like James Bond and more like a character from Totally Spies. One night, I simply could not take it anymore, and tried to fix the case with a Dremel. The result was the same I've attained whenever I've used the Dremel - total destruction of the case. However I was able to place in a project box using a 9v battery (instead of its regular 6 volts) and a nice-looking switch, and it now looks fairly professional. Learn from my lesson though: watch the delicate wires, especially around the speaker, since mine is now permanently silent.

If you have any experience with the P3 Bug Detector or any other detector, please let me know your findings. I'm of the mindset now that the only real detector I need is a good scanner and my frequency counter, but I'd love to be convinced otherwise.

Method: Making Anonymous Calls

You may come across a need to send information to another party in an untraceable fashion - perhaps sending a tip for information or communicating with a hostile party. Voice changers are available as well as services to redirect your call, but a simpler method is available.

First of all, know how to call without being identified by caller ID. I've been surprised at how many people aren't aware that you can suppress your phone number from being identified by dialing *69 before making your call. Note that some people will block unidentified calls.

Other methods you can do is spoof your caller ID and make it appear as any number you want using a SpoofCard. Not only will change the number, it can record the log and even change your voice.

An even cheaper method is call through a pre-paid phone card. The number that shows on the caller ID will not be the one you called from, and due to the huge volume of calls, it is virtually impossible to trace the call back to the original caller. You can get extra anonymity by either paying for the card with cash, or even getting a access from Coke Rewards.

When making you call, it is a good idea to disguise your voice is some way. Don't rely on muffling your voice with a handkerchief, use a tone modifier described in our February picks.