Ursula Lebana was a single mom with a deep suspicion her nanny was stealing from her. So she did what other moms didn’t and pioneered the teddy bear nanny cam. She partnered with a few technicians to develop the bears in different sizes and colours because, as she’ll tell you, a key part of espionage is to make the cameras as unassuming as possible. The bears can’t be the same because they would get recognized — and as soon as someone recognizes a camera, the jig is up.
Lebana’s early success in espionage prompted a full on love affair with surveillance, so much so that she turned it into a career. This past November, SpyTech celebrated its 20th birthday. Since its inception, SpyTech has become the go-to place for surveillance equipment, as it is both a retailer of spy technologies and a creative manufacturer of microphones.
With a storefront space on Yonge just north of Davisville, SpyTech isn’t exactly hidden and is rarely quiet. Television and movie crews come in all the time to rent bulletproof vests, bug detectors, counter surveillance equipment, hidden cameras and microphones. SpyTech’s technology has starred in Robocop, The Border, Flashpoint, Exit Wounds and Nikita — just a sample. Basically, Lebana told me, anyone in Toronto who needs spy equipment stops by. Businessmen from out of town take cabs up to the space frequently. Paranoid spouses buy sperm detection kits and voice stress detectors. Still though, its very much parents wanting to keep an eye on their children just as Lebana did hers when she opened SpyTech in 1991. Now though, there is also computer monitoring software that records a video file of everything the user is doing – including Facebook interactions.
“Our customers are everybody. From youngsters to seniors and law enforcement to the unemployed,” Lebana says.
Spy technology has come a long way since the nanny cam. Equipment has become smaller but stronger, capable of picking up visuals and sounds from farther distances. Cameras can record footage and stream live to everything from monitors to iPhones. And they come disguised as innocent alarm clocks complete with night vision, unsuspicious boardroom pens and normal-looking USB keys and wall adapters. I was allowed to photograph some equipment, but not all. “We can’t reveal all our secrets,” Lebana said.
But she did show me a few.
The lipstick microphone is exactly as it sounds: a microphone consealed behind what looks like your grandma’s vintage lipstick. These microphones are actually made in house, as SpyTech has several contracted engineers who create the inconspicuous contraptions. Like the other mics, they must be hooked up and fed back to a recorder. The danger with espionage equipment of this nature is if you need to go back and fetch it.
This might be a good time to factor in the laws Lebana mentions repeatedly throughout my visit. When recording a conversation, it is mandatory by law for one person in the conversation to know of the recording. If you wanted to record a conversation between two people without their consent, you’re actually guilty of intercepting private communication, which is a violation of the criminal code.
Pen cameras are still classics. The one pictured is the MemoQ memory and voice recorder. It writes like a normal pen, but records conversations with the tiny, unnoticeable slide of a finger. These pens come in a couple different forms and can pick up conversations from across the room. They transfer files via a USB key hidden inside. Another pen called simply the invisible ink pen allows you to write, but the ink disappears a few hours later. Lebana tells me a few women have bought it while joking about their nuptials.
This mini camera is Lebana’s favourite item and one of the most popular items in the store. It is so small it can be hidden almost anywhere. It’s an adaptation of the earlier camera used in those very teddy cams that brought us here in the first place.
If SpyTech taught me anything, it’s that the possibilities for surveillance are endless. A camera could be anything — a tie, an artificial eye, a Kleenex box. Tracking devices can be used for purse theft and locating Altzheimer’s patients. You can spy on anyone and do it affordably, as long as you do it legally.
SpyTech is located midtown at 2005 Yonge St. and a franchise location exists down in London, ON.
And girls, as an aside, you should probably know that they sell pepper spray there too.
Sheena Lyonnais writes about tech for Toronto Standard. You can follow her on Twitter at @SheenaLyonnais.