Spying Ireland (Day 1) ... The rise of spyware in Ireland

James Bond-style spy-ware, such as hidden cameras and tracking devices, is now available cheaply to all, John Hearne reports in the first of a two-part series.

PARANOID? Worried your spouse is cheating, or your au pair has the children plonked in front of the TV? Is your teen posting dodgy comments on his Facebook?

Fear not. You can install a tracker on your partner’s car and monitor his movements on your smart phone.

A camera hidden in a clock in the living room will monitor your childminder. You can install a keystroke logger on your teen’s computer.

Derek Noonan runs Spy Ireland, a website that sells equipment that used to be for James Bond. The tagline beneath the company name reads ‘When you simply have to know.’

Noonan says many have to know. Business is busy. “People go online, they buy the products, and do their own investigation work. That’s pretty much it.”

Much of this paranoia is justified. Infidelity is on the rise. The membership of Ashley Madison, a site that sets up dates for married people, has grown to more than 62,000 since it launched in Ireland two years ago.

“Certainly, without a shadow of a doubt, cheating area is very very big for us,” says Stephen Kehoe, a private detective who runs privateeye.ie.

During the boom, one half of Kehoe’s business was insurance fraud, while the other half was marital infidelity. These days, it’s 70% cheating spouses.

“We had our monthly meeting on Friday and everyone was saying that it’s gone through the roof. In the last quarter, we had 27 cheating cases. This quarter, we had 58 inquiries on cheating cases. That’s astonishing,” Kehoe says.

The recession is bringing out the worst in us. Noonan says that much of his work centres on “asset protection”. This means preventing machinery theft.

“That’s just gone through the ceiling. Guys just can’t protect their assets at the moment,” he says.

Just last month, Gardaí warned farmers against buying tractors from unverifiable sources, following a space of thefts. A ‘steal to order’ network has sprung up around farm machinery. Thieves file the chassis number from the engine and replace it with a bogus one, before placing the machine for sale on websites and in magazines.

On a windy Thursday in Maynooth, I met Noonan to view some of his stock-in-trade. The vehicle tracker — which is bought by suspicious spouses and machinery owners — is a small black box that sits snugly in the palm of your hand. The two silver disks on one side are magnets, to facilitate ‘rapid deployment’.

Attaching it to the underside of the car, tractor or JCB you want to track doesn’t involve bolts, screws or any mechanical know-how. You bend down, reach beneath the car, and it clicks on.

“Each of these units has a GPS tracking device, and each unit has its own, unique password. You deploy it, then, using an application on your smartphone, you can monitor its location in real time,” Noonan says.

With vehicle and equipment theft rife, the tracking device has become a common means of locating stolen gear.

“If a machine is taken off a yard, it’s either going to Dublin port or to Rosslare,” says Noonan. “Recently, we had a machine taken off a building site in Drogheda, on a Friday night at 7 o’clock. When the guy came in on Monday morning and saw it gone, he called us. We were able to track that machine to Dublin Port and across on the ferry to Holyhead. We alerted the police in the UK and they got it at 5pm on Monday evening, actually working on a building site in the UK.”

Noonan says the same technology can be used to create a ‘geofence’ around the perimeter of a building site.

If the machine leaves the site, and breaks this invisible electronic perimeter, the owner is sent a text to alert him.

Inevitably, the criminal community is working hard to adapt to a world in which trackers are becoming increasingly pervasive.

Noonan recounts one incident in which a large generator was hired out from a rental company using false documentation.

“The guy who stole it called up the company on the Monday, pretending to be a member of the Gardaí. He says ‘I found one of your generators on the side of the road in Co Cork’. He’s chatting away and he casually asks, ‘Is there no tracking device on that?’ The guy says ‘no, there’s not’. The ‘guard’ says, ‘Well, it’s there now if you want to collect it’…” When the company showed up at the supposed location, there was no generator.

Not all criminals are so clever, however. In another incident, thieves dug a hole with a stolen JCB and buried it to decommission the tracker. Though the criminals evaded capture, the digger was quickly recovered.

Nor do all applications involve the prevention of wrong-doing. Noonan also supplies personal tracking devices for nursing homes.

Again, a ‘geofence’ is created around the perimeter of the grounds, and if a patient wanders off, nurses are alerted with a text message.

These personal devices are also fitted with panic buttons. Again, nominated mobile phone numbers get a warning text if someone hits the button.

If you’re worried about your teenager’s driving, a tracker can provide comprehensive detail of what he or she gets up to on the road.

“It records journey times and locations,” says Noonan, “And, more importantly, in this particular instance, you can look live at speed or check back on the unit’s history.”

Kehoe says the technology has made a huge difference to his business, primarily by revolutionising covert surveillance. In the past, you had to sit across the road with a highly conspicuous zoom lens, surreptitiously capturing incriminating images. Not any more.

“The camera technology is amazing,” says Kehoe, “for long-distance shots and for recording devices. We have tie cameras, watch cameras… I have a New York Jets hat with a camera in it. That stuff has helped us enormously.”

“All our cars are fitted with mirror cameras,” he says. “If we’re following you and you look back, all you’ll see is what looks like an ordinary rear view mirror, but that mirror is actually a camera. You press one button and it starts recording. It can record up to eight hours of you following someone, and if they look back, you’re not holding anything, you’re not doing anything.”

Kehoe describes a recent insurance company job. He was despatched to establish whether or not a claimant was suffering from a back injury. Kehoe followed the man’s car, parked behind him, turned on the camera and went into the shop. “I didn’t have to go near the car. The camera captured him putting huge bags of potatoes into the boot.”

Noonan, too, has deployed hidden cameras in his insurance industry work.

“I had a guy in Cork a few years ago. He had a claim against one of the insurance companies, for more than €100,000,” he says. The man was a builder, so Noonan, posing as a potential customer, put on a tie-pin camera and went to see him on the building site.

He had a set of plans and, as they discussed the job, Noonan’s camera captured evidence of the man’s lack of injury.

Not all detectives believe that technology is the way forward. Audrey Christie, the country’s only female private eye, is old school. “Everything is down to surveillance,” she says. “Technology is just time-wasting. I find that the most effective way to get a result is to carry out physical surveillance on the subject. It’s just old-fashioned private investigation.”

She and the other private detectives say keeping within the law is of paramount importance in covert surveillance.

All eschewed the use of vehicle trackers in keeping tabs on a subject, since deploying the device involves some form of trespass. The same goes for keystroke trackers; to monitor someone’s web activity, you need to access their computer to install the monitoring software.

But if it’s your house and your car, the trespass issue doesn’t arise. Install the loggers, trackers and cameras, sit back and wait for the data to roll in. Let’s just hope it doesn’t turn out that your partner is having an affair with the au pair.

The stock-in-trade for spying

Vehicle Tracker

The Spy Ireland 620 comes in a small, purpose-built, waterproof, shockproof enclosure, while its two, surface-mounted magnets — which pull a whopping 70Kg — hold the device in place. There are no external switches or ports — the tracker charges wirelessly. It has its own password and reports to your mobile phone, giving you a detailed activity report of movements, times parked, and locations. Prices start from €375.

Spy Sunglasses

The site says it all: ‘Super-cool, 007 sunglasses with a mini spy camera built in.’ The camera records onto a 4GB SD card, which slots into a small compartment on the temple. €69.99 a pair.

Spy Pen

If you’re worried that the person you’re spying on will ask you why you wear sunglasses indoors, and at night, too, never fear.

The spy pen in your breast pocket is silently filming as you nonchalantly remove the glasses and replace them in your jacket pocket. And if your suspicious friend asks for a pen to write an incriminating note, you can offer them yours, safe in the knowledge that it also functions as a pen. Just pray they don’t open it and see the SD card slot. Ranging from 2GB to 8GB, some models also offer a motion sensor. Prices start at €49.99

Spy Watch

Even on close inspection, it’s hard to see how this watch functions as camera, video and audio recorder, as well as keeping the time.

It’s only when you study the number six, you realise that the tiny hole in the bottom of the digit is a camera lens. In addition to 4GB of storage, you get motion sensors and it is waterproof, which will be handy if your subject twigs what you’re doing, and dumps you in the East River. Prices start at €99.99

Spy MP3 Player

Another multi-functioning device, it can store 1,500 MP3s and has an eight-hour battery life. You also get a 1.2 mega-pixel camera and high-resolution audio and video recorder, together with 8GB of memory. It comes in a variety of colours and costs €79.99.

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