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7 Ingenious Hidden Spy Cameras

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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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Love Gordon Ramsay's Sick Kitchen Burns? Try His Insult-Loving Alexa App
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You can now invite Gordan Ramsay into your kitchen to evaluate your cooking. Or his voice, at least. Amazon Alexa’s new Gordon Ramsay skill features audio critiques from the notoriously foul-mouthed celebrity chef.

The interactive app was developed by the audio company Ground Control, which also produces podcasts like the former vice president’s news show, Biden’s Briefing, and various other Amazon Alexa skills.

For better or for worse, the Gordon Ramsay skill’s canned audio doesn’t actually require you to cook anything, as I found out when I decided to try it out on my own device at home. I was too busy (read: lazy) to actually whip up a dish, and decided to fool good ol’ Gordon instead.

“Alexa, ask Gordon Ramsay what he thinks of my lasagna,” I shout from my couch, take-out curry in my hands.

“The stench of your cooking violates the Clean Act,” he tells me. Rude! At one point, he calls me a doughnut. Somehow, this isn't a compliment. “I’ve seen better food in my dog’s food bowl,” he complains.

I try to take a different tack. “Alexa, ask Gordon Ramsay what I should cook for dinner.” Unfortunately, the chef has no suggestions—he only provides insults, not ideas. You have to ask something in the vein of “Critique my beef bourguignon,” or “Are my cookies bad?” (The answer is always yes, and probably will be bleeped.)

The virtual Ramsay will also get impatient if you don’t tell him to stop or ask him to judge another dish. “Wakey wakey,” he chides me when I don’t respond to his last sick burn. "Give me a f***ing question!" he yells at another point. If you want him to go away, you’ll have to speak up. “Stop!” I finally protest. Alexa asks me if I’d like to share my experience with my friends. No thank you!

“Try again tomorrow,” Ramsay signs off. “Hopefully by then, you’ll have learned how to cook.” Somehow, I doubt he'll like my lasagna any more than he does now.

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Ready to Cut the Cord? 12 Cost-Saving Alternatives to Cable
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By now, you’ve likely heard about how much less expensive it is to forgo your cable package and fulfill your television needs with streaming services—heck, your friend/neighbor/cousin/chatty coworker has been droning on about it for months. You’re finally ready to take the plunge; but where do you start?

First, make sure your router is up to the task: Don’t invest time and money in setting up new subscriptions and gadgets only to wind up with buffering video. Look for routers with dual-band connectivity; Netflix recommends a download speed of at least 5 Mbps (Megabits per second) for HD quality video, and over 25 Mpbs for Ultra HD. Then, substitute your cable or satellite provider for one or a combination of these 12 options.

1. THE BIG THREE

Often referred to as “The Big Three,” Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Prime are considered the cream of the crop in online streaming because they offer outstanding original programming in addition to large catalogs of existing shows and movies. Subscriptions to all three can be fairly reasonable, with Amazon Prime starting at $99 a year or $12.99 per month. Netflix's standard plan goes for $10.99 a month now, while Hulu will set you back $7.99 a month with limited commercials, or an extra $4 per month with no ads.

2. FLAT ANTENNAS

Since 2009, television stations have been required to broadcast exclusively in digital, rendering old-fashioned “rabbit ears” obsolete. Now, you can watch live shows on networks like NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, PBS, The CW, and others by installing a flat antenna in your home. Models by Mohu (starting at $17.99) and Channel Master ($19) are affordable and easy to install.

3. OVER-THE-AIR DVR

The one drawback to relying on a flat antenna is that you must watch your shows in real time, with no fast-forwarding, pausing, or rewinding. Solve this issue with an over-the-air (OTA) DVR. Services like Tablo or Plex DVR allow you to record live TV shows and then store them on an external hard drive for delayed streaming. (The catch is, some of these services require you to purchase a corresponding device—they won’t work with just any antenna.)

4. TV STREAMING SERVICES

Want more TV channels than are available through your antenna? For $20 a month, you can subscribe to Sling TV to get 28 live-streaming cable channels, such as AMC, CNN, TNT, Comedy Central, and the History Channel. A $40 monthly subscription will give you access to over 40 channels, including ESPN. There are other emerging services that might work for you, too.

PlayStation Vue has multiple plans depending on your interests, and you don't even need a PlayStation 4 console to use it. YouTube TV has fewer channels and plans than the Vue, but at $35 a month, it has a solid selection of high-profile networks, including ESPN and FX. Hulu has also entered the game with a live TV service, touting 50+ channels at $39.99 a month (which also includes the limited commercials Hulu streaming subscription). DirectTV Now has a package that starts off at more than 60 channels for $35, and it tops off at $70 for 120-plus channels.

You'll have to browse through each individual service to find out which one is compatible with the devices you own and if these plans are more cost-effective than your current cable package. But with no equipment costs or long-term contracts, these services are worth considering if you're ditching cable.

5. SPECIALIZED SUBSCRIPTIONS

If you have more unique tastes than even Netflix can account for, chances are there is a specialized streaming service that can give you what you want. Fans of British television should check out Acorn TV, which allows you to watch episodes of Jeeves and Wooster and the original Prime Suspect on your smart TV or mobile device for only $5 a month. If anime is your thing, Crunchyroll professes to be “one of the few legal, official anime and drama streaming sites out there," with premium subscriptions starting at $7 a month. Cinephiles have a few choices for popular art house and indie movies: Check out Mubi, Fandor, and FilmStruck, which is a streaming service collaboration from Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection.

6. CHROMECAST

Google's Chromecast ($35) quickly turns any HD TV into a smart TV. Just plug the Chromecast dongle into your TV’s HDMI port and connect it to your home Wi-Fi network. Now you can stream various apps (including Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO Now, YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, and more) onto the TV in your living room, while using your Android or iOS device as a remote control.

7. ROKU

Roku is a little black set-top box that connects your TV to the internet via Wi-Fi or Ethernet. It comes with a simple remote control and features more video streaming content than any other device or media streamer. You can even plug in a USB drive to play your own video and music files on your TV. Available in a number of models, including a USB stick version (starting at $49.95), many experts consider it the best and most reliable streaming device on the market today.

8. APPLE TV

If you’re an iTunes user who owns an iOS device and a MacBook, then Apple TV might be the best choice for you. Like Chromecast and Roku, Apple TV gives you easy access to the Big Three as well as HBO and Showtime; what sets it apart for Apple users is its seamless integration of iTunes and other Apple apps. It also comes with a nifty touch-surface remote that lets you swipe or use Siri to surf channels. With prices starting at $149, it’s the most expensive set top-streaming box for cord cutters, but it will be well worth the cost if you already live in the Apple ecosystem.

9. PLEX

If you already have a large digital movie, music, and TV library, you can use Plex to easily watch your media files from your computer or television. Sign up for and install the Plex Media Server (it’s free!) on your computer and it will catalog, organize, and label your files into a user-friendly interface that’s watchable on Apple TV, Roku, Chromecast, Android and iOS devices, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.

10. STANDALONE PREMIUM NETWORK SUBSCRIPTIONS

In the past, if you wanted premium cable networks like HBO and Showtime, you’d have to include it to your cable subscription package at an additional cost. But the networks have gotten hip to the cord-cutting trend and now offer standalone subscriptions. HBO offers HBO Now for $14.99 a month, while Starz has a streaming service for $8.99 a month that is compatible with Apple TV, Android, Roku, Chromecast, and Amazon Prime. Showtime offers streaming for $10.99 a month, or you can add Showtime to your Hulu Plus or Amazon Prime accounts for an extra $8.99.

11. DIGITAL NEWS OUTLETS

There are also great streaming options for news junkies. While CNN and MSNBC don’t have standalone streaming services, the cable news networks are available on Sling TV. News outlets like CBS News, Sky News, ABC News, Bloomberg TV, Fusion, and Newsy, meanwhile, all offer free live streaming services for Roku and Apple TV.

12. SPORTS PASSES

For some people, watching live sporting events has been one of the biggest barriers to completely canceling their cable subscriptions. But over the years, major sports leagues and entertainment venues have started to cater to the demands of cord-cutters. Now you can watch live, out-of-market Major League Baseball games on MLB.tv, hockey with the NHL GameCenter Live, and basketball with NBA League Pass. The NFL and DirecTV are now offering NFL Sunday Ticket to non-DirecTV customers, so more people can watch live, out-of-market NFL games every Sunday. You can even subscribe to the WWE Network for $10 a month for access to an extensive back catalog library and every new pay-per-view event.

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