Sunday, February 28, 2016

Detecting Hidden Cameras: A Basic Introduction To Counter Surveillance

By Matthew Schafer
Copyright 2016, All Rights Reserved

One of the things I really enjoy about teaching self-defense is quite often my clients will bring up great points or ask questions that lead me to cover something that I might not have or make me realize there is something new I have to address in my training curriculum.  Case in point, I was recently training a young college aged girl and she brought up the topic of hidden cameras.

She told me a friend of hers stayed at a very small motel while on a cross country road trip and while she was lying in bed trying to sleep she noticed every time a car drove by and the headlights lit up her room a shiny dot appeared on the ceiling for a brief second.  She ended up standing on a chair to investigate only to find out that there was a small camera hidden in the light fixture pointed straight at the bed.  Luckily, other than showering, she had been completely dressed then entire time in the room but she was still very upset.  When she complained to the front desk they denied there was a camera and refused to come to the room and see for themselves so she called the police but they never came.  After waiting for the police for 2 hours she gave up, spent the night in her car, and left first thing in the morning.

The most nerving thing, according to my client, was the people at the front desk told her that even if there was a camera in her room it wouldn’t be illegal because it is their motel and when she checked in she was clearly told the motel had hidden “security cameras” for her own protection.  The truth is that depending on where you are hidden cameras may or may not be perfectly legal.  This is an area where the law is catching up with the times and you need to check the laws of the area you’re in.

So, what can you do about it?  The first thing is you assess your environmental risk.  If you live someplace where you strictly control the access then you probably don’t need to worry about it too much unless you’re traveling.  Therefore, know that anytime you’re staying in a place where you don’t control the access then hidden cameras are a definite risk.

Be very mindful of the risk if you are staying in a hotel (the cheaper the hotel/motel the greater the risk but it does happen in expensive hotels and resorts), also be mindful if you’re staying at a friend’s house, or if you rent.  If you rent a house or apartment then you have other people with keys.  A copy of your front door key may also be in possession of your landlord, a management company, and various handymen and maintenance staff.  A downside of renting is that your landlord, or those acting as their agents, can legally enter your home when you’re not there in certain situations…or in any situation illegally.

Next, look at your personal risk.  Is there someone who could have motive and opportunity to put a camera in your home? Do you have a stalker or go through a bad break up?  Does your landlord, anyone that works for them, or even a member of their family seem creepy or out of place?  Do you travel a lot?  People are most vulnerable when they come out from their homes and travel, and the longer the distance the more vulnerable they get because they may not know the area or have resources there.  Plus, the more you travel the more you will find yourselves in hotels and the higher your risk of encountering hidden cameras.

A few more questions to ask  yourself are: are you famous, rich, related to or work for someone that is, or is there any other reason that someone might want to target you specifically because of who you are, who you know, who you’re related to, or who you work with/for?

In just a little bit we’ll discuss what happened to ESPN celebrity Erin Andrews.  She is a perfect example of someone with a higher than normal personal risk.  Erin Andrews is rich (check), famous (check), she knows and works with sports celebrities (check), she herself is considered a very attractive female (check, an attractive female is always at a greater risk but an attractive female who is also a celebrity has a greatly increased risk), she travels a lot (check), and she had a stalker she knew about so there was someone who may want to hurt her (check). 

There are also certain times when you should check for cameras and other devices.  Three main times when you should check for a device are: 1.) When you first take possession of the location.  When you first move into the apartment or house or when you first enter your hotel room.  2.)  When you return to the location after a long absence.  If you leave the location for a longer than usual absence such as being gone for the weekend or gone on vacation you should check it.  3.)  After the location has been violated.  A location is violated when someone you don’t trust has been inside for a significant amount of time.  If a landlord, handyman, maintenance person, or exterminator was in your room or home you should check it since they not only have access but are carrying tools. 

For example, a client of mine told me a story about an ex-boyfriend she had that couldn’t accept their breakup.  He started sitting outside her apartment and showing up at her job.  After a while he came up to her apartment and started banging on her door and when she opened it he pushed his way in, ran into her bathroom, and locked the door.  She said he refused to come out for about 5 minutes at which point she threatened to call the police; at that point he came out and apologized to her saying he had diarrhea and left.  She thought he might have stolen something so she looked around her bathroom only to find a shoeprint on her toilet seat, so she stood on the seat herself only to find a small camera tucked into an air vent.

Going into dressing rooms and public bathrooms also puts you at a high risk.  There have been thousands of cases of an employee or even just another customer hiding a camera in a dressing room at a store to spy on women.  A dressing room should always be checked before you remove any clothing.  Public bathrooms provide a little less of a risk but you should always check the stall, toilet, and surrounding area for anything resembling a camera lens.

Based on everything above you need to figure out just how vigilant you should be in your everyday life, but you should always take certain steps when
 you’re staying in one of those areas where a hidden camera may be more likely.

So let’s say that you’re in a hotel room; what should you do to protect yourself and your privacy and how can you find out if there are any hidden cameras?  Luckily there are some really easy steps.  Let’s look at what you should do in order.

First, let’s deal with the cameras that are not hidden.  The first thing you should do is go over to the desk and find that notepad they leave for you, normally over by the phone, and tear off the top piece.  Take a piece of tape and tape that paper over top of the peephole in your door, if you don’t have any tape you should be able to ball it up and jam it inside, just make sure it doesn’t fall out.

The peephole is a classic method of spying on you and for about $30 anyone can buy a “reverse peephole viewer” which allows someone to stand outside in the hallway and watch you in your room without you knowing.  This is what happened to popular ESPN personality Erin Andrews a few years ago.  A stalker followed her to a hotel room and used a camera that was fitted with one of these viewers to record her walking around naked in her hotel room through the peephole while she had no idea.  He even released the nude photos on the internet.  So cover up the peepholes in your hotel room and also your apartment or house (there are companies that sell peephole covers if you’d want something more stylish and permanent).

Even though this is a bit of violation of Ms. Andrew’s privacy I recommend everyone stop and go to google, select “images,” and search for “Erin Andrews Nude.”  I’m not trying to embarrass her, violate her privacy, or reward her stalker but the pictures are up there anyway, they are not going anywhere, and I want to make something positive come out of them by using them to make an impact on you by showing you the degree of what can be seen through a peephole.  While these pictures are fuzzy they show a good degree of the room and keep in mind this guy was standing outside her room in the hallway, she had no idea that she had been recorded until the pictures showed up online.  I believe by seeing the photos yourself you’ll take this issue far more seriously than anything I could do myself (if the pictures are not enough you can easily find the actual video online and that seems to do it for most people.  I think that is because the video makes it seem more “real”).

Next, tape a piece of paper over the camera in your laptop or tablet.  Criminals can easily hack your computer and activate the camera so they can watch you without your knowing.  Always have the camera on your computers and tablets covered up.

After that take your smartphone into consideration; it is also not hard to hack your smartphone which can see and hear everything you do.  If you have a smartphone and privacy is a big concern I recommend leaving it turned off and then turning it on and checking it a few times a day.

The last non-hidden camera is the TV; I recommend when you get to a hotel room you unplug your TV unless you’re watching it.  The first reason is because inside a TV is a good place to hide hidden cameras or listening devices and if that is the case they’ll wire the device into the TV so it can be left there and the perpetrator doesn’t have to worry about replacing the battery.  By unplugging the TV you should turn off any device hidden inside.  Second, your TV is probably spying on you anyway.

A lot of TVs today have cameras in them and the smart TV’s even have microphones.  Just like a criminal can hack your computer and watch you through your webcam a criminal can also hack the modern TV and use their cameras too.

Beyond that, smart TV’s are actually designed to spy on you, watching you and listening to everything you say.  Samsung Smart TVs even come with a warning that says:

“Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of voice recognition.”

It is a scary world; even if you have a newer TV at home I recommend always unplugging it unless you’re watching it and even then be careful what you say around it.  It is a very real possibility that you could be sitting in your own home and mention to your spouse that you committed a crime or what your bank account pin number is and your TV will record that information and send it to one of their third party companies who could sell it, have an employee steal it, or in the case of a crime confession perhaps notify the police.

I also want to mention protecting your privacy by protecting your computer.  A common scam at hotels is for an identify thief to purchase a wifi router and set its name to the same name as your hotel.  When you go to connect to the internet you’ll see a list of connections available and there will be one saying “Holiday Inn” or maybe “Holiday Inn Free Wifi” at the top and when you connect to it the connection won’t be secured and your computer will be accessed, maybe the camera as well, and the information on your computer will be stolen.  This happens more overseas but it does happen quite a bit in the US.

Always ask at the front desk what their wifi router’s is named and look at the complete list your computer gives you before you pick one, because there might be multiple connections named “Holiday Inn” and only one is legitimate.  Even better than this is to bring your own secured connection with you while you travel.

I also want to discuss two way mirrors for a moment.  A while back there was something going around the internet that said if you place your finger on a mirror and the reflection of your finger touched your actual finger (there was no gap in between) then the mirror is actually two way glass and someone could be standing on the other side watching or recording you.  This is false to a large degree and I’m not going to get into why, but I will tell you a much more accurate method of detecting a two way mirror.

First, if the mirror is hung on the wall it is just a mirror as in order for two way glass to enable spying on you the mirror would have to be built into the wall.  If the mirror is built into the wall tap on it with your knuckles; if there is glass and wall behind it you should hear a sharp “thud” but if it opens to another room you should hear a hollow sound.  Lastly, two way mirrors require the light on your side to be brighter than the light on the other side so turn off the light, place your eye right up to the glass, and cup your hand around your eye to block out extra light.  If there is another room behind the glass you should be able to see the faint outlines.

Now that we’ve covered all of that what about hidden cameras themselves?  Here is what you need to know to find hidden cameras.

Look in the typical areas that cameras get hidden as chances are that the person spying on you is not professionally trained in covert surveillance so they’ll make “rookie mistakes.”  Common areas are books on the shelf, picture frames, alarm clocks, clocks, smoke alarms and detectors, inside air vents, lamp bases and lamp shades, and any other small item sitting out.  In the bathroom check inside the toilet (yeah, I know), the air vent in or near the shower, and even the shower head itself.

The two main types of cameras you’ll find are wired and wireless.  Since wireless cameras run on a battery they have to be larger than wired devices are to account for its battery.  These devices are just quickly placed in areas and camouflaged to try to hide them.  These devices can be quickly set up but they are larger and have limited power so they typically can only record for a matter of hours before they run out of juice and the perpetrator has to come in and replace the battery.

Wired cameras are smaller so they're easier to hide but they have to be wired into the buildings electrical system or another device so they take longer to install, and may have wires sticking out that will give it away if not installed properly.  In a situation where someone wants to spy on someone in a hotel room or apartment they don’t want to risk being caught by continually going in and changing the battery so for long term surveillance wired cameras are generally used.

You also have to be on the lookout for recording devices as well as cameras.  While these devices cannot see you they can listen in to all the private details of your life and may just be able to acquire enough information to steal your identity.  Since a wired device needs to be wired into the electrical system (or another electronic device) they are usually found where electricity starts and stops.  Light switches, power outlets, and light fixtures are the most common places for wired devices because all the perpetrator has to do is unscrew the cover plate or fixture, use the wires which are right there meant to be used, push the device inside the wall, and then put the cover plate back on. 

Keep this in mind while you’re looking.  Are there any strange wires behind a book case that indicate a camera in a book?  Is there a strange wire running down a wall?  Also, look for items that cameras are wired into.  You can go online and buy alarm clocks, picture frames, smoke detectors, ball point pens, and many other items with cameras built inside.  Step back and look at the room and ask yourself if anything looks out of the ordinary.

How do you look for these devices?  There is a couple easy ways.  Since a camera lens reflects light you can grab a good bright flashlight and then turn off all the lights and close the curtains so that the room is as dark as possible.  Slowly shine the flashlight all over the room and anyplace you suspect a camera might be and see if you notice anything reflecting back at you.  Since hidden cameras have small lenses you normally will see the tiniest little speck of light shine back at you.  Any time you see something reflecting the light back remember where you are standing and then go and see what that item is and if it is not a camera return to your spot and keep looking.  Since CIA and other intelligence agents often have little to no equipment on them when working undercover this is the most common method they use if they don’t have a bug detector.

The next option is to get a bug detector.  I picked up one for just $15 that is decent for most people (meaning you’re being targeted by common criminals who buy their equipment online and not government agencies with huge budgets) called the “CC308+” which you can easily find just by searching for that name.  This is a cheap device but it still works great for most surveillance devices.

The CC308+ has a red lens you look into while you press a button to light up some LED’s on the other side.  By using this red lens and the LEDs any type of lens shines brightly and is easily spotted.  This method is better than using a flashlight only because it is easier to see with the red filter.  The device also detects radio signals so it can find listening and recording devices.  You simply turn it on and then listen to the hum and watch a row of red lights.  The closer it gets to something sending a radio signal the louder it beeps and more lights light up.  You simply take it around your hotel room and make sure to hit all wall switches, electrical outlets, light fixtures, books, and anywhere else a device could be and check what sets it off (it will go off for your cell phone and for your wifi modem since those both work with radio signals).

Many women keep this, or a similar device, in their purse and carry it around with them.  Now when they're in the dressing room at a store, a public bathroom, or end up having to stay the night someplace they don't trust they just pull it out and scan the area.  In an dressing room you'd simply take this device out, turn it on and extend the antenna, and then move it around the mirror, door, bench, etc.  If only one light is on then you're fine but if it detects a camera, listening device, or anything sending a radio signal it will light up and make a squealing noise.

You can also use this device to sweep your car to see if there are any cameras, listening devices, or GPS trackers hidden in your vehicle.  When should you be concerned about GPS trackers?  Anytime you could be under investigation by someone.  This could include stalkers and jealous spouses.

Do a quick environmental analysis and personal risk assessment.  Are you in a foreign country?  If so that government may track you.  Do you work for a large company, the US government, or a company that deals with the US government?  If so the foreign government may have more reason to track you.  If you’re in the US, are you a person that could attract a stalker?  Do you have any enemies or people that are mad at you?  If someone was to take you hostage is there a way they could ransom you for a lot of money?  Are you cheating on your spouse or do they suspect you of doing so? 

Here is one most people don't think about, did you file a claim for worker’s compensation?  If so, many times the insurance company will hire a private investigator to follow and record you to see if you are actually injured, and regardless of the law, often these companies don’t want to have someone follow you constantly so they’ll plant a GPS tracker on your car and show up here and there to try to catch you.  Typically the device will be mounted with strong magnets underneath your car by the rear wheels, but you should still check all around inside and outside.

Always be mindful and if you answered “yes” to some of these questions you should take extra steps to protect yourself; seeing that a decent bug detector is only $15 and it only takes a few minutes to sweep your car it isn’t too much of a hassle.

There are much better devices out there and I am not endorsing the CC308+, just stating that it seems to work fine, is widely used, and at $15 is pretty cheap.  More expensive ones can run up to hundreds of dollars and some will let you view the signal they find so once you detect a signal you can look at a monitor and if you see an episode of “I Love Lucy” you know it is a TV signal but if you see yourself on the monitor you know you just found a bug.

There are also several smartphone apps that claim to find bugs but they come with mixed reviews.  Most of these work by having you take a picture of part of the room and the app will analyze it and highlight any camera lens they find.  Since the apps have mixed reviews and the CC308+ is only about $10 more and about the size of a small phone personally I would use that until there is universal consensus about the apps.