Backyard James Bonds take snooping high tech

A concerned customer recently asked Vickie Mosley, a technician at Surveillance Plus here, if it was possible a neighbor could be eavesdropping on his private conversations.

Curiously, the neighbor had started tossing out bits of information in casual conversation about events that only had been discussed in what the customer thought was the sanctity of his own home.

Ms. Mosley helped rig an amplified microphone off the man's patio so he could hear what was happening in the neighbor's house, creating a curious scenario - neighbor spying on a possibly spying neighbor.

With today's abundant cheaper technology, spying is increasingly becoming easier for the average American. In an age of voyeurism in which an impeachment trial captivates and tabloid talk shows entertain, people are finding reality can hold more thrills than make-believe.

"People are curious about what their neighbors, friends, spouses, even strangers are doing," explains Mosley. "What could be going on next door can be more interesting than the movie you rented to watch."

Gadgets from the world of James Bond are invading boundaries considered sacred. Privacy, once a given right, is quickly slipping away as prying people buy an array of technological innovations - from simple recording devices to complicated computer cameras.

"Everyone wants to play Joe Mannix," says Lauren Weinstein, moderator of the Privacy Forum in California. "Everyone wants to be the private investigator and get the goods.... Invasion of privacy is more than a little scary these days."

Stores like Surveillance Plus and Counter Spy Shop are making it easier for the neighborhood busybody to snoop on the neighbors. While these companies still primarily provide security and counter-measure products for companies and government agencies, they are also enticing people to play secret agent.

One product available at Counter Spy Shops is the "truth phone," a desktop phone with a covert lie-detection mechanism built in. And, of course, the phone automatically records conversations. For $3,900, Linda Tripp could have known instantly if her friend was lying or not.

ANOTHER product - a Web camera - allows the suspicious to place a camera in their computer that can download images to another computer anywhere in the world. Vacationers, along with distrustful spouses, can log on to see what is occurring in their house while they are gone.

Products and services can run several thousand dollars. Phone scramblers, for example, are $7,200 per pair, and a necktie with a hidden camera (black-and-white images only) is $1,800. The color version runs $2,200. A phone-tapping detection kit can set a person back $12,700.

But in some ways, spying has gotten cheaper - and easier, says Lee Lapin, author and consultant on surveillance and security measures. "You can get a tape-recording device for the phone for very little money. With this kind of access, spying is in vogue these days."

Getting information on people has never been easier. Taping conversations may be illegal in some states, but other activities are not. For instance, some people buy a scanner and drive through neighborhoods listening to cordless and cellular phone conversations. Neighborhood surveillance cameras, installed for security reasons, also allow everyday activities to be monitored.

The growing trend, says Mosley, is to install tiny microphones in vehicles to record conversations, especially to catch a cheating spouse. She also recalls one instance where a husband installed a camera over his wife's computer to crack her e-mail address code.

Another example is the popularity of Caller IDs, which display incoming telephone numbers. Reverse Caller IDs tell the destination of outgoing calls.

"People are seduced by technology," says Ms. Weinstein. "They start out simple, but then as more and more becomes available, everyone has to have the technology. 'Who's calling me? Who's calling someone else? Who is doing what?' Just because something can be done with technology doesn't mean it should."

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