There are hundreds of affordable and effective spying devices available for purchase on Amazon. Buyers praise the items in recent reviews: “Perfect camera for spying. I put it on, and my wife was unable to figure out where it was,” says one. In another review of a camera, the user wrote that “I can watch videos in real time, remotely, through the cell phone app. When I’m resting, or even in the bathroom, or right after a meeting, I can turn it on at any time to see the family.”
Both examples come from Amazon Spain and explain how spying devices operate. The legitimate use of these devices is to locate vehicles or dogs and to observe the behavior of pets, babies or hypothetical burglars at home. As with other products, some comments are innocuous: “I bought it to see which of the cats was stealing my chicken and discovered that all three had teamed up for the perfect robbery. Good quality, none of them knew they were being recorded.”
But beyond these curious and acceptable uses, there are reviews that mention the surveillance of housekeepers and office staff. The devices can also be used to spy on partners, before or after a breakup. Over the course of just a few years, technology has become cheap, effective, simple to use and difficult to detect, and its popularization could become a serious problem. At USENIX, a leading security conference, in August, at least two academic papers analyzing this sector were presented: “We are the first to highlight the problem that spy devices, used for partner surveillance, are available for purchase online,” one of those papers says.
“I started working on this issue in early 2022,” says Rose Ceccio, a member of the privacy and security group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of this study. “I volunteer with a group called Madison Tech Clinic. We work with survivors of domestic violence to help them with their technological safety. Some participants were concerned about these covert devices, and we realized we had no idea what was out there and no tools or techniques to help these survivors. That’s where this project came from,” she adds.
“I think this abuse of spying on couples with devices will continue to grow as a phenomenon,” laments Ceccio. While the devices themselves are not new, their ubiquitous presence, reduced prices and ease of use are recent. “GPS trackers have been around for a long time, but only recently have they become cheaper [and] easier to use and [begun to] use advanced means of communication such as Bluetooth and cell phone networks. Previously the devices had difficulty communicating their data to the user, which made them more difficult to use. Physically following the victim or recruiting others close to them was and still is a common tactic. The difference with these devices is that they are much easier to use,” she adds.
On the lists of best-selling products in these categories, the reviews are often very recent, which may indicate their increased use. Beyond their potentially criminal use, the presence of these cameras in private places will turn their users’ lives into great feature films just waiting to go viral on Tik Tok.
“My girl was giving me bad vibes”
Of the U.S. reviews that the researchers analyzed, few openly acknowledged illegal use: just 43 out of a total of 15,139. “That’s a small percentage,” Ceccio says. “Most use these devices for other things. However, the importance of those 43 reviews is that they demonstrate that these devices can be used for stalking and, in some cases, that is already happening. They are not intended to show that this is a widespread problem. But as these devices become cheaper and cheaper and more available on popular websites, they are much easier to acquire and use than they were five years ago,” she adds.
Some reviews are very explicit about the use to which the devices were put: “I caught my wife cheating on me in the act. It worked great, but the configuration did not accept special characters like !@#$%& for the Wi-Fi password.” Another example: “My girl has been giving me bad trust vibes. Luckily I found this device, bought it and I must say it works exceptionally well. The first day, I caught her lying about which Popeyes restaurant she went to, and of course, when I reproached her, she said she lied to me to avoid a fight with me. So yeah, it’s always the men’s fault, no matter what, hahaha.” Researchers found this review for another device: “I’ve been tracking my husband and now I’m tracking his lies about what he’s doing and where he’s going. I can’t believe it. I put it in the back pocket of the driver’s seat, and it works perfectly.”
In the study, researchers collected 2,228 spying devices. The three requirements for the devices they analyzed were: it had to be electronic, collect sensitive information (such as audio, video or location) and small enough to make it easy to conceal. Seven hundred devices met all three criteria. Of those, researchers analyzed a sample of 163: “We found that 29% were advertised for some form of hidden surveillance and several were explicitly promoted for spying on a partner,” the article says.
The researchers studied Amazon, eBay, Best Buy, Walmart and Home Depot, all of which are located in the U.S., although some have a global presence as well. One device on eBay was promoted with this line: “Black housing, easy to hide, perfect for tracking vehicles, teens, spouses, seniors or property” and “GPS tracker for cheating boyfriend partner.” Affordable prices are key in this market. The average price of the analyzed devices is $30.70 (€29), and the most expensive ones range from $373 to $1,010.
The analysis was not limited to devices and also included methods for detecting their presence. Detection systems are often, but not always, flawed. There are devices that connect via Wi-Fi, while others use a mobile data card and still others have local memory to retain recordings. “The ideal solution would be a magic wand, a single tool that could detect any type of covert device, but that may not be a viable solution. Our vision is to give such tools to groups that help survivors of abuse. They can then be trained about what devices exist and how to detect them,” say the authors of the study.
This research focuses on devices that are meant for spying. Another article by the same group analyzes all the options that allow for spying with devices operating in the so-called internet of things. Created for everyday household purposes like remotely turning off the thermostat, opening and closing the garage door, and observing who is entering the house with a camera linked to the doorbell, research has documented the illegal use of these items as spy devices.
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