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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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Design Firm Envisions the Driverless School Bus of the Future
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Engineers have already designed vehicles capable of shuttling pizzas, packages, and public transit passengers without a driver present. But few have considered how this technology can be used to transport our most precious cargo: kids. Though most parents would be hesitant to send their children on a bus with no one in the driver's seat, one design firm believes autonomous vehicle technology can change their rides for the better. Their new conceptual project, called Hannah, illustrates their ideas for the future of school bus travel.

As Co.Design reports, Seattle-based design firm Teague tackled both the practical challenges and the social hurdles when designing their driverless school bus. Instead of large buses filled with dozens of kids, each Hannah vehicle is designed to hold a maximum of six passengers at a time. This offers two benefits: One, fewer kids on the route means the bus can afford to pick up each student at his or her doorstep rather than a designated bus stop. Facial recognition software would ensure every child is accounted for and that no unwanted passengers can gain access.

The second benefit is that a smaller number of passengers could help prevent bullying onboard. Karin Frey, a University of Washington sociologist who consulted with the team, says that larger groups of students are more likely to form toxic social hierarchies on a school bus. The six seats inside Hannah, which face each other cafeteria table-style, would theoretically place kids on equal footing.

Another way Hannah can foster a friendlier school bus atmosphere is inclusive design. Instead of assigning students with disabilities to separate cars, everyone can board Hannah regardless of their abilities. The vehicle drives low to the ground and extends a ramp to the road when dropping off passengers. This makes the boarding and drop-off process the same for everyone.

While the autonomous vehicles lack human supervisors, the buses can make up for this in other ways. Hannah can drive both backwards and forwards and let out children on either side of the car (hence the palindromic name). And when the bus isn’t ferrying kids to school, it can earn money for the district by acting as a delivery truck.

Still, it may be a while before you see Hannah zipping down your road: Devin Liddel, the project’s head designer, says it could take at least five years after driverless cars go mainstream for autonomous school buses to start appearing. All the regulations that come with anything involving public schools would likely prevent them from showing up any sooner. And when they do arrive, Teague suspects that major tech corporations could be the ones to finally clear the path.

"Could Amazon or Lyft—while deploying a future of roving, community-centric delivery vehicles—take over the largest form of mass transit in the United States as a sort of side gig?" the firm's website reads. "Hannah is an initial answer, a prototype from the future, to these questions."

[h/t Co.Design]

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Google Home Is Finally Able to Multitask
NBD Photos, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
NBD Photos, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The hallmark of any great assistant is a talent for multitasking. Now, CNET reports that this ability is now a part of Google Home. The voice-activated device can finally process and execute two tasks that are said in a single command.

With earlier versions of the software, if you wanted to ask Google Home to cancel an alarm for a certain time and set a new one, for example, you would need to speak the first command, wait for it to be completed, and then say the second. The new feature allows you to string together both requests without pausing. This is the case for tasks that are related, like playing a song and turning up the volume, as well as those that are unrelated, like checking football scores and asking for cake recipes.

To save even more breath, you can combine this tool with Google Home’s Shortcuts feature. Shortcuts lets you assign short phrases to more complicated commands (like replacing “play workout playlist on Spotify” with “workout time”). Now you can use Shortcuts to have Google tackle multiple tasks at once by saying just a couple words.

The home assistant’s new ability is limited: Three tasks is still too much for it to keep track of, even if you’re pairing a two-task shortcut with one straightforward command. So after asking for a time and weather update, you’ll have to be patient before asking Google the answer to the universe.

[h/t CNET]

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