There are hundreds of affordable and effective spying devices on Amazon. In recent reviews, their buyers praise them: "Perfect camera for spying. I put it on and my wife was unable to figure out where it was," says one. Or this other review, also from a camera: "I can watch videos in real time, remotely, through the mobile phone application. When I'm resting, or even in the bathroom, or right after a meeting, I can turn it on at any time to see the family."
Both examples are taken from Amazon Spain and explain the operation of devices to spy. The legitimate use of these devices serves to locate vehicles or dogs and to observe the behavior in the home of pets, babies or hypothetical thieves. As in other products, some comments are almost literature: "I bought it to see which of the cats stole my chicken and discovered that the three had allied for the perfect robbery. Good quality, none of them knew it was being recorded."
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But apart from these curious and acceptable uses, there are reviews that mention the surveillance of domestic workers and office staff. They can also be used to spy on couples, before or after a breakup. EL PAÍS has not found in Spain any comment on electronic devices to openly spy on a couple, although it is obvious that commentators know their potential problems: "The truth is that it is very good. Ideal to have the pet controlled, not your partner, which is a crime."
The popularization of a technology that in a few years has become cheap, effective, simple to use and difficult to detect, can become a serious problem. At one of the main security conferences, Usenix, at least two academic articles analyzing this sector were presented in August: "We are the first to highlight the problem that spy devices, used for surveillance of couples, are available for purchase on online platforms," says one of those articles.
"I started working on this issue in early 2022," says Rose Ceccio, a member of the privacy and security group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who authored the research. "I volunteer in a group called Madison Tech Clinic. We work with survivors of domestic violence to help them with their technological safety. Some participants were concerned about these covert devices and we realized that we had no idea what was out there and that we had no tools or techniques to help these survivors. That's where this project came from," he adds.
Screenshot of the article where they show an article explicitly aimed at "catching the unfaithful partner".
"I think this abuse of spying on couples with devices will continue to grow as a phenomenon," Ceccio said. Although these devices are not exactly new, their diffusion and lowering of cost and simplicity to connect them is recent. "GPS trackers have been around for a while, but only recently have they become cheaper, easier to use and use advanced means of communication such as Bluetooth and mobile phone networks. Previously, devices had difficulty communicating their data to the user, which made them more difficult to use. Physically following their victim or recruiting others close to them was and still is a common tactic. The difference with these devices is that they are much easier to use," he adds.
In the lists of best-selling products in these categories, reviews are usually very recent, which may indicate a growth in their use. Beyond their potentially criminal use, the presence of these cameras in private places will turn the lives of their users into great feature films waiting to become a new viral tiktok.
"My girl gave me bad vibes"
Among the reviews analyzed in the U.S., there were few that openly acknowledged illegal use: 43 out of 15,139. "They're a small percentage," says Ceccio. "Most use these devices for other things. However, the significance of those 43 reviews is that they prove that these devices can be used to harass and, in some cases, it is already happening. They do not seek to demonstrate that this is a widespread problem. But as these devices become cheaper and available on popular platforms, they are much easier to acquire and use (even for IPS) than they were five years ago."
Some examples of reviews are very explicit in their use: "I caught my wife cheating on me on the spot. It worked great, but the setup didn't accept special characters like !@#$%& for the wifi password." Another example: "My girl has been giving me bad confidence vibes. Luckily I found this device, bought it and I must say that it works exceptionally well. On the first day, I caught her lying about which Popeyes restaurant she went to, and of course, when I reproached her, she said she lied to me to avoid a fight with me. So yes, it's always the men's fault, it doesn't matter why lol." In another product, researchers found this other example: "I've been tracking my husband and now I'm tracking his lies about what he's doing and where he's going. I can't believe it. I put it in the back pocket of the driver's seat and it works perfectly."
In the work they collected 2,228 spying devices. The three requirements they asked to analyze the devices were: that it be electronic, that it collect sensitive information (such as audio, video or location) and that it can be hidden, that is, that it has less than 4 centimeters on a side. The devices that met all three remained at 700. Of those, they analyzed a sample of 163: "We found that 29% were advertised for some form of covert surveillance and several were explicitly touted to spy on the partner," the article says.
The platforms observed by the researchers are Amazon, eBay, Best Buy, Walmart and Home Depot; All American, though some have a global presence. A device on eBay was promoted with this phrase: "Black case, easy to hide, perfect for tracking vehicles, teenagers, spouses, seniors or property" or "GPS tracker for cheating boyfriend couple". A key detail in this market is affordable prices. The average price of the devices analyzed is 29 euros, and the most expensive between 373 and 1,010 dollars.
The analysis is not limited to the devices, but to methods to detect them. Although this is not always the case, the detection systems are flawed. It is not easy, in addition, that they are able to detect the variety of devices and their types of connections. There are devices that connect by wifi, others using a mobile data card and there are those that still keep the recordings in a local memory. "The ideal solution would be a magic wand, a unique tool that can detect any kind of covert device, but it may not be a viable solution. Our vision is that groups that help survivors of abuse receive the tools. Thus, they can receive training on what devices exist and how to detect them," say the authors of the study.
This research focuses on devices already intended for spying. Another article from the same group analyzes all the options offered, to spy or harass partners or ex-partners, devices of the so-called internet of things. Created for domestic and everyday purposes such as turning off the thermostat remotely, opening and closing the garage door, or observing who enters the house with a camera linked to the doorbell, their illegal use as spy devices has also been documented.
* If you have more information about cases like those told in this article, you can write to email@example.com
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