Why you should care

Because a growing countersurveillance movement is now putting the power of privacy back in the palms of the people.

Decades before anyone had heard anything about Google Glass, Steve Mann — aka “the father of wearable computing” — used to walk around with a computer-connected camera linked to his eyeglasses. These days, however, the brilliantly quirky University of Toronto electrical and computer engineering prof has set his cyborg-like eyes on a new target: the Veillance Wand, a rod lined with lights that automatically illuminates whenever it’s within the sight field of a surveillance camera. Simply put, Mann has found a way to figure out exactly where a camera is looking.

Why go through all this high-tech trouble? Well, for starters, cameras are ubiquitous today. If one’s not going off from someone’s smartphone or tablet, or from their glasses for that matter, then there’s likely one above you or waiting just around the corner. Watching. Your. Every. Move. This year, the video surveillance market is forecasted to grow to $37.5 billion, up from just $11.5 billion in 2008, according to data from market research firm Electronics.ca Publications. For years now, privacy concerns seem to have taken a beating at the hands of the digital age, what with data leaks and governments having admitted (and sometimes not) to spying on their own citizens. But there’s also a growing countersurveillance movement — fueled by tools that were once reserved for large-scale military operations or high-level business deals — that’s putting the power of privacy, at least in some cases, back in the palms of the people.

Some of this has been driven in recent years by the falling prices of countersurveillance tools, such as electronic eavesdropping equipment.Hidden camera detectors, for example, used to cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars a decade ago, and required professionals to operate them. Today, such devices can be purchased online for less than $100 and don’t require any special training.

Of course that’s put some areas of business in jeopardy. BrickHouse Security, a New York City-based company, used to offer bug-sweeping services to clients such as hedge funds. Around five years ago, it decided to halt that side of the business as the technology became cheaper and easy enough for, well, not only money managers to afford and use but everyone else as well.

… Espionage has gone on a lot longer than technology has existed … People are always trying to find out other people’s secrets.

— Todd Morris, BrickHouse’s founder and CEO

At the same time, sales of other countersurveillance gizmos have climbed — like small hand-held camera detectors that let an individual quickly sweep a room and find out if a hidden camera has been placed in, say, a mall changing room or an apartment bathroom. Even a quick online search will turn up wiretap detectors for under $200 and bug detectors for less than $100. Some of these gadgets feature an infrared camera lens surrounded by red LEDs that flash on and off. Consumers would see an unexpected bright spot that pinpoints where, exactly, a camera is. “There are some very inexpensive ones that women literally carry in their purses and take into dressing rooms,” says Todd Morris, BrickHouse’s founder and CEO.

Beyond dressing rooms and boardrooms, some modern countersurveillance tools have become part of an important line of defense for journalists working in hostile territories. Detecting whether or not they’re being watched allows journalists to figure out who might be observing them, and why, “allowing them to take measures like varying their routes to and from work, or vacating the area,” says Frank Smyth, the executive director of Global Journalist Security, a hostile-environment training and consulting firm.

For his part, Mann hasn’t yet determined what the Veillance Wand might cost when — and if — it ever makes it to the market. He sees plenty of uses for it, such as allowing insurance appraisers to find blind spots in homes or corporate security systems, or as a tool that people could deploy for personal use in case they’re concerned someone is watching them.

Not everyone sees a practical application for the invention, though. Morris, for one, is fascinated by Mann’s contraption but, he says, “I don’t know that it solves a problem.” As these tools continue to evolve, however, Morris believes more sophisticated surveillance will eventually be developed to circumvent all of this countersurveillance. And so the cycle will continue. “If you study the Greek and Roman empires, you’ll know espionage has gone on a lot longer than technology has existed,” says Morris. “Whether it’s papyrus or stone, people are always trying to find out other people’s secrets.”

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