People worry that Big Brother and Big Tech are invading their privacy. But a more immediate concern may be the guy next door or a shifty co-worker.
A growing array of so-called smart surveillance products have made it easy to secretly live-stream or record what other people are saying or doing. Consumer spending on surveillance cameras in the United States will reach $4 billion in 2023, up from $2.1 billion in 2018, according to the technology market research firm Strategy Analytics. Unit sales of consumer surveillance devices are expected to more than double from last year.
The problem is all that gear is not necessarily being used to fight burglars or keep an eye on the dog while she’s home alone. Tiny cameras have been found in places where they shouldn’t be, like Airbnb rentals, public bathrooms and gym locker rooms. So often, in fact, that security experts warn that we are in the throes of a “bugging epidemic.”
It is not paranoid to take precautions. A lot of spy gear is detectable if you know what to look for, said Charles Patterson, president of Exec Security, a firm in Tarrytown, N.Y., that specializes in corporate counterespionage.
Look for anything in your surroundings that appears disturbed, out of place or odd. Surveillance can be done by more than clunky nanny cams. It can be conducted with wireless microdevices, some as small as a postage stamp, that can be stashed in hard-to-spot places like inside clocks, light fixtures and air vents.
Be wary of anything with an inexplicable hole in it, like a hole drilled into a hair-dryer mount in a hotel bathroom. And scrutinize any wires trailing out of something that’s not obviously electronic, like a desk, a bookcase or a plant.
“A basic physical inspection is something everybody can do,” Mr. Patterson said.
Another low-cost way to spot surveillance equipment is turning off the lights and using a flashlight to scan a room to see if the lens of a camera shines back at you. If you don’t have a flashlight, look around using the front-facing camera on your smartphone (the side you use for video chats), which may allow you to see the otherwise invisible infrared light that spy cameras emit.
A quick way to see if your phone’s camera detects infrared light is to look at your television remote through the viewfinder. If you can see a light flash on the tip of the remote when you press its buttons, you’re good to go.
You can also download the Fing app on your smartphone, which when activated will show you all the devices connected to your Wi-Fi network. Anything that includes the name of a camera manufacturer — like Nest, Arlo or Wyze — or that the app flags as a possible camera is cause for concern. As is anything that you can’t readily identify.
More sophisticated voyeurs may use spy gear that has its own hot spot for live streaming. So it’s a good idea to check for other Wi-Fi networks in the vicinity that have a strong signal. But that won’t help if the device is recording everything onto a tiny memory card for the peeper to retrieve later.
If you want to be more comprehensive in your sweep, several do-it-yourself counter-surveillance tools are available. Among the easier-to-use devices are specially designed camera lens detectors. They cost $200 to $400 and emit a circle of superbright red LED strobe lights. When you scan the room looking through the viewfinder, even the tiniest camera lens will appear to blink back at you, giving away its location.
“I used to sell mostly cameras, but in last few years it’s more detection devices,” said Jill Johnston, chief executive of KJB Security Products in Nashville. “There are just a lot more things to spy on you with. It’s really changing our business model, to be honest.”
Also popular are radio frequency, or R.F., detectors that can pick up signals emitted by surveillance devices. While you can get them for as little as $40, the better models start at $300 and can cost as much as $8,000, depending on their ability to analyze and differentiate signals.
Like old-fashioned metal detectors, R.F. detectors often produce a beep or tone that gets louder the closer you get to a transmitting radio signal. The more expensive versions have digital displays that detail the various radio frequencies detected and where they may be coming from.
Most environments today are filled with radio signals. Unless you get the most expensive gear and the associated training offered by the manufacturer, you’re going to have a hard time knowing whether your place is bugged or you’re picking up a signal from your neighbor’s Wi-Fi or your wireless computer mouse or Bluetooth speaker. To reduce the number of false positives, security experts recommend first turning off or unplugging all your devices before you start your scan.
Browsing Amazon and other online stores like Brickhouse Security and Spygadgets.com can also help. You’ll see that cameras and microphones don’t always look like cameras and microphones. They can look like smoke detectors, water bottles, air fresheners, cellphone chargers, pens, key chains, coffee makers, space heaters, birdhouses and plush toys.
Of course, you can always get professional help. But a professional sweep of a home or an office can range from $1,500 to more than $10,000, depending on the size of the space, the number of nooks and crannies, and the amount of clutter.
USA Bug Sweeps, a surveillance detection firm in Freehold, N.J., specializes in residential bug detection and does as many as three sweeps a day versus maybe one or two a week three years ago. Jimmie Mesis, the company’s chief executive, attributes the surge to recent news reports about cameras being hidden in homes by creepy landlords or handymen.
“For every one camera that’s been found, there have probably been a hundred cameras that haven’t been found,” Mr. Mesis said.