At Surveillance Expo, paranoia means business The Cold War's over but spying still pays

October 31, 1997|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

TYSONS CORNER, Va. -- Dave McCall holds up a football-sized chunk of asphalt that looks as if it might have been collected fresh from a pothole out on Leesburg Pike. He points it at a couple of somber Mexican security men, potential customers passing by his booth.

Their surprised faces appear on the little Sony video screen nearby.

"You put this on the street in front of a building, and nobody's gonna notice it. Nobody," McCall tells them, rotating the asphalt so that the pinhole video camera hidden inside pans the exhibit room at the Sheraton Premiere Hotel. If the asphalt doesn't suit you, McCall, a 23-year Army Special Forces veteran from North Carolina, can put the camera in a fence post, a cell phone, a table lamp

Paranoia means good business here at Surveillance Expo '97, the annual spookfest held this week among the anonymous glass towers off the Washington beltway. If you're scared your employee's stealing from you, your competitor's spying on you, your husband's cheating on you, you've come to the right place.

Big Brother may not be watching. But it seems a lot of little brothers probably are.

Some are foreign businesses trolling for U.S. companies' secrets -- FBI Director Louis J. Freeh said last year that the agency was investigating such spying by 23 countries. U.S companies, in turn, are keeping a close eye on employees: A survey this year found that 63 percent of 900 large and mid-size U.S. companies conduct video or telephone monitoring of workers, and a quarter of those don't inform those under surveillance.

About 35 companies are pitching their wares at this convention, a dozen lecturers, maybe 1,200 people looking over the products. The browsers are private eyes, corporate security officials, federal and local law enforcement officers, spy wannabes and a few of the real thing. One man's name tag reads "George Liu, U.S. Govt"; he declines to specify just which agency, then hurries away.

You can catch seminars covering "On-Body Cameras for Investigations," "Countering Corporate Espionage: Reports from the Field" and "Ethics in Countermeasures: An Oxymoron?" You can swap bugging tales with electronics guys, former spies and ex-cops with nicknames like "Slick" and "Kid" and "Doc."

You can inspect a fanny pack that is completely ordinary except for the matchbook-size video camera behind a grommet in the first zipped section, the 12-volt battery pack in the second zipped section and the microwave transmitter in the third zipped section.

You can even watch a company called Advanced Aerials launch its $17,000 radio-controlled miniature helicopter with cameras aboard. It's the perfect option for peeking at a rooftop rendezvous, though with its lawn mower buzz and eye-catching yellow frame it's not exactly discreet.

"There's our target. We're locked on," declares Bert Wagner of Advanced Aerials, as the copter trails a taxi passing through the hotel parking lot. One can only imagine what the cabbie thinks.

The emphasis is on video spy equipment, because selling audio bugging devices to anyone other than police or spy agencies is illegal, and the federal government is cracking down. In July, the president of Spy Factory Inc., a chain of shops selling electronic devices, was sentenced to 51 months in prison for smuggling and selling illegal bugs and wiretaps.

But to listen to Kevin Reierson, a Minnesota-based executive of Ross Engineering, the Virginia company that organizes the annual trade show, is to be convinced that the ban on private eavesdropping is widely ignored.

"We've ended the Cold War," says Reierson, 44, a former private investigator. "We've got a lot of people who worked in espionage, and they're now on the open market."

These privatized spooks, he says, are sitting outside in vans, tuning in to the wireless microphones you use for amplification in your company's conference room. They're stealing your PCs -- not for the obsolete hardware, but for the far more valuable data on your hard disk. They're giving you a credit-card-size calculator with a company logo, failing to mention that it is broadcasting your every word to a tape recorder outside your building.

They're even going through your trash, plucking out that used fax ribbon and reconstructing sensitive documents.

"I don't throw mine away," Reierson says. "The ribbon contains a copy of every fax you send."

Reierson describes a case in which a large U.S. medical corporation created a research division in a new field, taking pains to keep the effort confidential. A competitor suddenly created a similar project, beating the first company to market. The first company gave up, shut down the new division and wrote off the huge costs it had incurred.

"Only when they literally were dismantling the operation did a moving man move a filing cabinet and say, 'What do you want to do with this?' " -- holding up a listening device fashioned from a Radio Shack baby monitor, Reierson says. "A $40 device cost them $100 million."

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