Shop for Spies and Would-Be Spies – The New York Times

At stores that specialize in surveillance gadgets a predictable increase in customers wanting to guard against cell phone hacking.

Shop for Spies and Would-Be Spies

By Noah Rosenberg August 7, 2011 6:30 pm August 7, 2011 6:30 pm

From its 1,200-square-foot space overlooking 34th Street in Manhattan, Spy Shops offers customized surveillance installations with five-figure price tags for foreign princes, chart-topping rappers, business tycoons and paranoid husbands.

Its display cases exhibit an impressive pastiche of long-range listening equipment ($249 and up) and matchbook-sized tracking devices ($650), perfect for concealment in an imitation soda can, which the store also offers. Spy Shops even sells a high-definition video camera embedded in a fake B.M.W. key ($249), which might make Agent 007 — a poster of James Bond hangs on a wall — kvell with delight.

The shop, on the second floor of the building, is one of a handful of New York City businesses devoted to the burgeoning consumer surveillance industry, and all the hidden-camera gadgetry, and dissolvable-paper gimmickry, that it has spawned.

It is generally a lucrative industry, employees say, since there is no shortage of New Yorkers with security concerns, whether warranted or paranoia-induced. And it operates in something of a legal netherworld — certain products come with disclaimers warning customers of the fine line between lawful surveillance and criminal espionage.

Steven Demeter, 32, one of the owners of Spy Shops, likes to say that his is a “right-now business” because “people want on-the-spot results.”

And for the last few weeks, ever since the British phone-hacking scandal erupted, Spy Shops’ right-now request has been cellphone security, Mr. Demeter said.

“I knew there was a connection,” Mr. Demeter’s wife and co-owner, Silvia Demeter, said, “because whenever there’s a breaking story like that we get a lot of phone calls. The first couple days it was ringing off the wall.”

Requests for cellphone debugging exams ($150), in which phones are examined for tracking devices and software, are up, as are sales of Spy Shops’ $1,800 cellphones, equipped with built-in scramblers to prevent conversations from being monitored.

“I had a guy come in the other day and buy six of them for his company,” Mr. Demeter said.

The truth, however, is that while Spy Shops and other consumer surveillance outlets, like Spy Store, in the West Village, may specialize in stealth, they have no real way to protect customers against the remote voice mail invasions perpetrated by The News of the World, the British tabloid that was at the center of the hacking scandal.

Experts caution that the latest phone-hacking technologies are virtually undetectable because they require no hardware or software to be installed on a phone.

“With these new products they got out, they can hack into your phone and it’s a problem,’’ said Bob Leonard, an owner of Spy Store.

“I told a guy this morning already: Take your battery out. ”

Ms. Demeter, 40, said she was astonished when she began to comprehend the simplicity with which voice mails could be hacked into with an inexpensive, relatively new product prominently displayed in her store.

“This card will do it,” she said, pointing to a stack of business cards with “Caller ID Controller” printed on them, alongside a personal identification number.

The card, which costs $25, can alter the way a phone number appears on a recipient’s caller I.D. she said. This can prove handy for a cheating spouse wishing to disguise his location, a scheme Ms. Demeter said was favored by one of her customers. The card could be used to make a phone number appearing on a recipient’s caller I.D. match that person’s own number, making it possible to access the voice mail system without entering a password.

“That is unprotectable,” Ms. Demeter said. “Totally unprotectable.”

As if on cue, Mario Vivas, a Spy Shops manager and technician, hacked into his own voice mail using a Web site offering a free caller I.D.-faking service.

Despite Spy Shops’ innovative solutions for everyone from a father eager to monitor the speed and location of his child’s car, to an artist needing to film the interior of a tiny sculpture, its employees are admittedly ill-equipped to deal with cellphone hackers. (Certain cellphone providers, but not all, have built-in safeguards requiring the entry of a voice-mail password, even when the call appears to come from the phone itself.)

“The new technology is great when you want to know something, but when you want to protect yourself, sometimes it gets a little difficult,” Ms. Demeter said.

And that seemed to trouble customers at Spy Shops the other day, even as they shopped for gadgets with which to eavesdrop on others.

Asked if he had been concerned about the allegations of cellphone hacking, a man, who would only identify himself as Will, said: “Of course! I don’t want people listening.”

Yet, Will, as he waited to complete his order, seemed pleased at having found the answer to his personal security problem: a video camera implanted in a functioning alarm clock that would survey his room, and his sticky-fingered roommates, in his absence.

“We don’t have any privacy anymore,” Will said, as he walked out with a new surveillance gadget.

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