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Getty Images

7 Ingenious Hidden Spy Cameras

Getty Images
Getty Images

There may be no more important tool of espionage than the camera. It’s ideal for blackmail, collecting information, stealing documents, and reconnaissance. Because the technology involved is relatively simple, it’s possible to insert a camera into just about anything—and throughout history, that’s just what spy agencies have done. Here are a few objects that have doubled as cameras.

1. A copy machine

In the 1960s, the Soviet Union wanted a top-of-the-line copy machine for its embassy in Washington. They ordered a Xerox model 914 copier, which was among the best that money could buy. What the Soviets didn’t know was that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) got wind of the purchase and made an order of their own: a specialized camera, to be installed inside the machine. Xerox designed and built the camera, and assembled the copier at an abandoned bowling alley. The modified copier snapped pictures of every page copied. During regular maintenance, the Xerox repair guy would take the film and install a new roll. The project was a quiet success for the CIA.

2. A matchbox

Designed by Eastman Kodak for the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of the CIA and U.S. Army Special Forces), between 1000 and 2000 matchbox cameras were manufactured during World War II. They used 16mm roll film, and country-specific adhesives could be applied to each side. If World War II ½ breaks out, take heart: the cameras frequently turn up on eBay; good ones generally run $3000.

3. A button

The CIA, Russia's KGB, and Britain's MI6 each had custom variants of the button camera. It was bulky and required a coat for adequate concealment, and worked like this: A lens mechanism fastened through a buttonhole. On the other side was a (relatively) flat camera whose trigger mechanism ran by cord into a coat pocket. Whenever a spy wanted to take a picture, he simply reached into his pocket and pushed a lever. This caused the “button” to slide apart, at which point a photograph would snap and the button would reseal. It used 16mm subminiature film.

4. A cigarette lighter


The Echo 8 cigarette lighter camera was made in Japan in the 1950s. Sliding open the top of the lid revealed a viewfinder, and lifting the lid revealed the shutter release. A small metal door on the side of the lighter opened when the shutter release was pressed, and closed after a photograph was taken. Alongside the windscreen was a recessed film advance wheel, which could then be turned. After twenty photographs were snapped, it would turn freely, letting the spy know that it was time for a new roll. (The camera used 8mm film.) You could even adjust the aperture and exposure with small levers. And yes, the lighter was fully functional.

5. A necktie

Minox cameras, designed by Walter Zapp, a Latvian inventor, were tremendously popular in spy circles because of their size and quality. The Toychka necktie camera, manufactured for the KGB, used a variant of the Minox and worked much like the button camera. A special harness fastened the camera to the spy’s body, and the lens was disguised as a tiepin. A cord ran to a pants pocket.

6. A satellite

This one seems like a no-brainer, but it was, in fact, a triumph of design, engineering, and execution. The CORONA satellite reconnaissance program was accelerated after a U-2 spy plane was downed over the Soviet Union in 1960. With imagery intelligence out of commission, geospatial intelligence became priority. It took 14 tries before a working CORONA spy satellite was successfully placed in orbit. Every week, the satellite dropped a capsule containing three thousand feet of film—scrutinizing roughly 1.65 million square miles of Soviet territory. Notably, these capsules didn’t float gently to the ground for a relaxed pickup. Rather, they had to be snatched midair over the Pacific Ocean by an Air Force transport plane.

7. A pigeon

The pigeon cam wasn’t actually inside the pigeon—not that such a concept was unthinkable. (See: Project Acoustic Kitty.) Rather, lightweight, battery-powered cameras were strapped to the chests of pigeons for aerial reconnaissance. (Earlier attempts at pigeon photography, before the lightweight camera was developed, resulted in overburdened pigeons weighed down over Washington, and forced to walk home.) The cameras were set to automatic, and the homing pigeons were released over the target area. Details and successes of the pigeon photography program remain classified.

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Sponsored by Byzantium Security International

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Logitech
This $40 Wireless Keyboard is Solar-Powered and Might Just Revolutionize Your Workspace
Logitech
Logitech

Meet the $40 solar-powered keyboard that's about to make your life a whole lot easier.

The Logitech K750 Wireless Solar Keyboard can be charged by sunlight as well as artificial lights, like your desk lamp, and stays juiced up for at least three months in total darkness. With this innovative gadget, Logitech is eliminating the annoyances that come with other wireless keyboards, like constantly having to change the batteries or plug it in to recharge. Best of all, the Windows-compatible model is on sale at Amazon for $39.99, down from $59.99. Never fear, Mac users—there's a model for you, too (although it's slightly pricier at $54.88).

(Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy.)

Having a reliable wireless keyboard can save you time and undue stress, whether you work in a cubicle or a home office. Plus, at one third of an inch thick, the keyboard is so sleek that Logitech compares it to typing on a laptop (and Amazon reviewers agree). You can monitor the gadget's power level by downloading the Logitech Solar App for your computer. Setting it up is easy: Just plug the receiver into your computer and you're done. It also comes with a three-year warranty for peace of mind.

solar keyboard
Logitech

Customers rave about this gadget on Amazon: One person writes that it's "the single best keyboard I have ever owned." Another loyal customer notes, "I first encountered one at work, and I liked it so much that when I switched jobs, I had to get another!"

Take advantage of this deal on Amazon while you can. While you're at it, check out the $95 mattress that Amazon customers are losing their minds over.

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Focus Features
How Mister Rogers Saved the VCR
Focus Features
Focus Features

In 1984, a landmark case laid down a controversial law regarding technology and copyright infringement. Here's a look back at the "Betamax Case," including the role Fred Rogers played in the Supreme Court's decision.

For many years in the pre-DVD/Blu-ray, pre-streaming era, the BetamaxSony’s prototype videotape player-recorder—was a punch line. A piece of technology that was quickly superseded by VHS and the VCR, it limped along in the shadows for two decades. And yet, it was the Betamax that gave its name to a court case that has played a pivotal role in both technological progress and copyright law over the last 30-plus years.

Like many other cool electronic products, the Betamax came from Japan. In late 1975, it was introduced to the U.S. by Sony, who touted its ability to “time-shift” television programming. In an era when most viewers still had to get up off the couch to change channels manually, this innovation was as futuristic as it sounded. Record a TV show right off the air? Are you kidding?

If the public was wowed by the idea, the major entertainment corporations were not. Universal Studios and Walt Disney Productions filed a lawsuit in 1976 to halt the sale of the Betamax, claiming that film and TV producers would lose millions of dollars from unauthorized duplication and distribution of their copyrighted content.

When the case finally went to trial in 1979, the U. S. District Court ruled in favor of Sony, stating that taping programs for entertainment or time-shifting was fair use, and did not infringe on copyright. Further, there was no proof that the practice did any economic harm to the television or motion picture industry.

But Universal, unhappy with the verdict, appealed in 1981, and the ruling was reversed. Keep in mind that up until the arrival of the Betamax, movie studios had received a cut of the box office or fee whenever one of their films was shown. Now suddenly here was a rapidly expanding scenario that undermined that structure. And in this scenario was the seed of much that would follow over the next 34 years, right through today’s ongoing battles over illegal streaming sites.

MISTER ROGERS GOES TO WASHINGTON

With large sums of money and copyright ownership at stake, the Betamax case arrived at the Supreme Court in 1983. By this point, nearly 50 percent of all homes in America had a VCR (VHS replaced Betamax, mainly because its tapes had longer recording capability) and sales of videocassettes were competing with theatrical box office. Universal Studios vs. Sony Corporation of America, nicknamed the “Betamax Case,” was argued for a year. It was a trial of extremes. On one hand, you had Jack Valenti, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, yelling about the “savagery and ravages” of the VCR, and claiming that "the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone." On the other, you had the testimony from Fred Rogers. Defending the VCR, he said:

"I have always felt that with the advent of all of this new technology that allows people to tape the 'Neighborhood' off-the-air ... they then become much more active in the programming of their family’s television life. Very frankly, I am opposed to people being programmed by others. My whole approach in broadcasting has always been ‘You are an important person just the way you are. You can make healthy decisions’ ... I just feel that anything that allows a person to be more active in the control of his or her life, in a healthy way, is important."

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Sony and cited Rogers's comments: "He testified that he had absolutely no objection to home taping for noncommercial use and expressed the opinion that it is a real service to families to be able to record children's programs and to show them at appropriate times."

The decision set two major precedents. The first upheld the original decision—that recording a broadcast program for later viewing is fair use. The second was, and still is, controversial—that the manufacturer of a device or technology that can be used for copyright infringement but also has “substantial non-infringing uses” can’t be held liable for copyright violations by those who use it. It’s kind of technology’s version of “don’t shoot the messenger.”

The same points of law would reemerge two decades later in cases against file-sharing sites Napster and Grokster (in the latter, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously against them for trading copyrighted material). Of course, despite the popularity of legal movie and TV streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu, file sharing continues. Whether it can be, or should be, stopped is a subject for another day. But it’s worth remembering that all the manufacturers of technology capable of copyright infringing (from computers to iPhones to DVRs) continue to sell their wares without fear of lawsuits because of the once-laughed-at Betamax.

To discover more about the fascinating life of Fred Rogers, check out Won't You Be My Neighbor?, the new documentary from Focus Features, which arrives in theaters on June 8, 2018.

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