How Technology Is Changing the Spy Business

15 minute read

While all of us understand the amazing power of technology, we’re also aware of how easy it is to completely ignore its proper use and disregard our greatest of minds’ contributions. We simply take everyday technology for granted, probably because we got so used to it. Which is why our scientific landmarks, designs, and ideas, and how they shape our lives, is something worth talking about in this day and age.

Specifically, we’re talking about spy gadgets, and we’ll explain why we chose this field. Today’s spying devices are popularized and very accessible, as opposed to ancient times where they were solely related to warfare.

There’s no other way to put it - spy gadgets go hand in hand with science, and the technological advancements throughout history seem to dance by the rhythm of a very obvious pattern - the basic human needs. Safety, more specifically.

Spy equipment has had an undeniable effect on today’s society. There’s so much to talk about, the timeline, change of purpose, and the evolution of spy devices, so let’s start with a little history and work our way up to modern uses and what the future of spy devices may hold.

A Brief Glance at Spy Technology Throughout the Ages

There’s a reason why we’re so amused by spy movies. All those cool-looking spy gadgets that aid the hero to defeat the villain makes us wonder, are they just figments of the writer’s imagination or can they actually be purchased and used in real life?

Most of the espionage equipment, as shown by Hollywood, is pure sci-fi. Still, there have been a plethora of brilliant and ingenious ‘spy’ devices in history, going way, way back. Looking back today, thinking how they even made these ancient gadgets is fascinating, to say the least.

The reason we’re doing this little spy history walkthrough is to separate scientific facts from James Bond fiction.

The Ancient Purpose of Spy Gadgets

Spy devices took on many forms in ancient times.

In contrast to today’s use of spy devices solely for security and monitoring, espionage gadgets were solely utilized for warfare and intercepting the enemy’s resources. The purpose was very straightforward, and the only thing that mattered was conquering an enemy territory or stopping their plans by any means necessary. That meant waging ‘invisible wars’.

We’ll start from the ancient times B.C., where espionage was merely beginning to take form and popularize among warring civilizations.

Scytales - Cylinders With Hidden Messages

Our 18th US President, Ulysses S. Grant, is quoted saying “war never changes”. Essentially speaking, yes.

In 500 B.C., there were small cylinders wrapped in parchment or skin. These so-called Scytales, contained hidden warfare messages and orders carried by messengers or soldiers. The hidden nature of the small espionage containers was purposed to hide the war communications to prevent the enemy from uncovering war plots, in the likely chance that the soldiers were caught or killed. Deciphering the code required placing the material over an exactly shaped rod.

The National Security Agency had a similar device, only a modified USB connector called a Cottonmouth, that was able to gain access to high-security networks. So, Grant’s most quoted words stand firm to this day.

The Alberti Cipher - Disks With Undecipherable Letters

The Alberti Cipher of 1466 may be one of the first polyalphabetic ciphers in history. It’s a system of alphabets that allows messages to be written and decoded.

This was all thanks to the Italian architect, painter, and inventor, Leon Battista Alberti, who created two disks engraved with the cipher. They were placed together and turned to create and decode the messages. One had to be taught the proper methods of tweaking the espionage disks given that using the device was tricky.

Silver Bullets in the 1700s

It’s not what you think. These silver bullets aren’t meant for vanquishing demonic creatures. Though in the 1700s, one would think exactly that.

There were many great advancements in this era, and that includes espionage. These silver bullets were the size of a musket ball. Lightweight, lead-made, and hollow, these bullets concealed war communications and small order papers that the agents would swallow.

They quickly changed the material and started using silver, because the agents kept dying due to lead poisoning.

Sympathetic Stain - The First Invisible Ink

This is a fascinating one.

This invisible ink was developed by Dr. James Jay, John Jay’s brother, the nation's first chief of justice in the Supreme Court of the US.

There were two distinct chemicals, to be exact. One was used to write the message, and the other to decipher it. It was gifted to Silas Deane, a revolutionary spy operating out of France. He also gave another sample to none other than George Washington.

This ink was used only by the most prolific spies in the 18th century.

The Coal Torpedo - An Explosive Device in the 1800s

One of the most creative uses for gunpowder was the ‘coal torpedo’, devised by the Confederate Secret Service in 1864. The coal torpedo is hollowed-out iron casting that was filled to the brim with dynamite and other gunpowder explosives. The Confederates simply stuck gravel and painted it to look like coal.

This makeshift explosive device sank countless ships. The numbers are unknown because the papers documenting this device were burned or ‘lost’.

Hidden Maps in Board and Card Games - The 1940s

Not a device, but still a worthy mention, playing cards and Monopoly were used to convey important messages in World War II. U.S. and British intelligence agencies blotted secret maps and documents into these playing cards and Monopoly boards.

Closing in on the peak of the Cold Wars, the victorious allied nations sought even more influence and political power through industrial espionage.

Soaking the paper revealed the maps, compasses, tracks, lines, and hidden orders. Amusingly enough, these pieces of valuable info were usually on the "free parking" space of the Monopoly board.

Espionage devices evolved, as the need for more information and data went on the rise.

Let’s move onto the peak of industrial espionage.

The Many Spy Devices of the 1960s and 1970s

As things were heating up with the Cold War, the increasing political turmoil, globalization, as well as new scientific advancements, the World saw the zenith of industrial espionage. 

Rectal Escape Kits

This is basically nothing, in contrast to what lengths the two countries went for just a piece of information. If the two nuclear superpowers went against each other with weapons, there would be no today.

So, they went for other drastic measures.

While this specific spying kit raises eyebrows, for the staff in the intelligence agencies it’s a walk in the park. It’s exactly what the name says it is, and it has been an extreme standard in industrial espionage.

A small capsule made to remain hidden in the rectum of CIA agents, in case they got captured - a fate not uncommon for spies. It contains razors, files, picks, and serrated knives that can cut through very sturdy prison bars. The capsule itself has a very smooth surface.

No man left behind, I guess.

Lipstick Pistol

A carefully designed firearm, concealed in a lipstick container. The 4.5mm caliber is not to be trifled with, this meant certain death if aimed at vitals. This weapon was meant to be used by female agents, and at close range, obviously. Maybe someone went in drag, who knows, as it’s not uncommon for agents. They’re weird like that.

This ‘Kiss of Death’ was used by KGB agents.

Bulgarian Umbrella

An umbrella tipped with ricin is all it takes to eliminate a political defector.

Bulgarian writer and political dissident, Georgi Markov, was the victim of this unusual weapon.

He defected from his home country and went to London, working as a BBC broadcaster, to escape the political turmoil. Apparently, he caught the wrong attention after speaking against some Bulgarian powerhouse politicians.

He was murdered in 1978 by an unknown assailant, with a ricin pellet fired from an umbrella.

It’s believed that he has been definitely murdered by a Bulgarian spy. Quite possibly, the Bulgarian secret service asked the KGB for the technology.

Audio Bug Devices and Radio Transmitters of the Cold War

The new era of technology and popularization of satellites, networking, and computers, directly enabled new and less violent methods for the intelligence agencies of the world to gain an advantage over their political adversaries.

Countless audio recording devices, radio signal interceptors, communication eavesdroppers, hidden cameras disguised as objects, and even poison-tipped umbrellas were used… and we’re just talking about the declassified ones.

Espionage played an important role in the Cold War and highlighted the ongoing tensions between the U.S. and Russia, the two superpowers crazy enough to start an arms race with unimaginable weapons of mass destruction.

T11-51 Dog Excrement Transmitter

The 1970s were simply weird.

The T11-51 is actually a radio transmitter, and a homing device. Disguising it as dog poop actually turned out quite genius, because nobody would be that crazy. Or so they thought.

This radio transmitter was used by the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam operations. Reportedly, it conveyed supply movements at night,  during the Vietnam War to convey supply movements at night.

The Elephant Counter

Speaking of Vietnam, here’s a mechanical logging device.

During the Vietnam War in the 1960s, the CIA used the ‘elephant counter’ to secretly log people and supplies that cross the border from the Ho Chi Minh Trail from North to South Vietnam.

The CIA recruited trail watchers from Laos and ordered them to keep track of anything that passes through, but the problem was - they didn’t know English.

So, that’s why the device contains knobs of numbers and pictures of troops, vehicles, supply trucks, tanks, and of course, elephants.

The Pipe

‘Ceci n'est pas une pipe’, so said Rene Magritte.

This pipe hides a radio receiver. It was used only by the most dapper spies, and it was designed for formal meetings, depending on the scenario and the nature of the spy’s mission.

It hides a radio receiver, and the agent could hear by holding the pipe in his mouth, as the sound traveled through the jaw bone to the ear canal.

The Hidden Spy Cameras of the Cold War Era

CIA operatives have declassified some really interesting spy devices that were used in this crazy era. In this CIA museum, you can find many interesting hidden cameras, as used for industrial espionage.

"Revisiting technology is something we always do in the world of espionage,” the CIA museum director Toni Hiley says. “There's no such thing as technology that's too old for operations."

If you want to check out more spying devices, check out the CIA collection of spying devices.

Here are some that we filtered out as very interesting.

The Spy Pigeon Camera

Talking about one of the first spy cameras, the evolution of the spy surveillance device starts with one of the smallest cameras from the 40s.

Pigeons, as messengers and spy devices, have been used throughout history to uncover secret plots, political affairs, military uses, and some noblemen have even been using them for their personal communication. World War II saw literally every side using pigeons to conduct reconnaissance missions.

It’s one of the first spy cameras disguised as everyday objects, or birds, as is the case here.

One such war hero, the U.S. Army's Cher Ami (‘dear friend’) donated by the British fanciers for the U.S. Signal Corps in France, successfully carried out important reconnaissance missions. Earned herself the Croix de Guerre from the French Army. She’s also a pigeon.

Cigarette Pack Camera

This cigarette pack hides a miniature 35-mm Tessina film optics camera. The packs were usually Parliaments.

The CIA chose the Tessina camera, albeit not the greatest camera ever, because of how quiet and small it was, enough to execute the mission perfectly.

The Microdot Camera

The period of increased hostility and nuclear wars looming over everyone’s head demanded more quiet measures for uncovering the enemy’s plans.

The Microdot Camera is regarded as one of the crucial espionage cameras in this era. It could take pictures of important files, documents, and government orders, and reproduce them as very tiny dots. The dots were concealed inside letters, containers, rings, pens, and they could be read with a special microscope.

An ingenious device, this is the essential example of what a spying device should do - inform your allies, and keep your enemies stumped

Spy Gadgets Today

Today, spy gadgets are very accessible and cost-effective, and anyone can purchase and use them. Be it audio, video, or GPS, spying devices can be found on the internet, and can be utilized in many different ways for many different purposes.

In contrast to how once it was so unimaginable, and could only be seen on TV, spying devices today are used by almost every walk of life, and for more ethical reasons - family safety.

Many homes are protected by surveillance cameras nowadays.

You can:

  • Record your conversations
  • Track a car, truck, or other vehicles
  • Prevent workplace harassment
  • Catch car thieves
  • Monitor your kids

We didn’t forget the more questionable methods of surveillance devices, like planting bugs in Airbnb rents. So, we urge you to please be careful in this day and age. You never know who is using spying devices for something other than home security.

The Future of Spy Technology

We, as a civilization, must be careful of the uses of technology, and where it may lead us. We must be more flexible and more innovative, and be very cautious not to create space for abuse, as data science emerges stronger than ever.

The spying devices the superpowers had once used, have now shapeshifted into surveillance devices and data monitoring software. The western world’s intelligence giants are dealing with a massive growth of technology proliferation, like artificial intelligence, the Internet, and Big Data, which constantly changes ‘the game’.

The margin of error is little, as every company today greatly fears data breaches and attacks. Not only that, but we see how viruses and software abuse threatens the stability and security of every civilian in the world.

Unfortunately, today’s wars are even more secretive than before, and greatly involve propaganda, as everyone is constantly informed of a neverending barrage of 24/7 news.

Fortunately for us, there’s less violence than before, but the dangers are taking on new shapes and forms.

Unethical surveillance, abuse of data and internet, and the breach of civilian privacy is no laughing matter.

The Dangers of Data Overload, the Aftermath of Cold War Methods, and Solutionism

Today’s intelligence agencies throughout the world still operate with residual Cold War methods in their missions, despite profound changes in industrial espionage.

There are countless examples of how companies now employ Cold War tactics to sabotage their competitors by using social media, and by spying on them in any way they can, without having to face lawsuits. It’s one of the better examples of how the shadows of industrial espionage still loom in the air.

We’re completely surrounded by cameras. Our phones can be potential data transmitters, audio/video, and everyone has them in their pocket.

For more on how technology rapidly changes the core and internal hegemony of the intelligence and data industry, here’s an interesting read.

As a closing word, we must address the importance of keeping our technology at the highest moral and ethical standard, and be careful not to fall into the gaping void of solutionism. Or even Orwell’s ‘1984’ scenario.

Or worse yet - Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’.

Contact Us

Are you familiar with some spy devices that we haven’t mentioned? Do you have any spy stories or war anecdotes you want to share with us? Please feel free to comment/contact us.

We value our customer’s discretion and time. Our SpyGuy experts will guide you and help you to choose the most suitable body-worn cameras for you, specifically tailored to your needs.

Please feel free to drop us a line at any time if you have questions or inquiries about our products.

« Back to Blog