Real life spy gadgets

Ejecter seats, super magnetic watches, guns you can make from a cigarette case and a cuff link - sadly none of these exist in the lives of real spies but Pocket-lint spoke to surveillance expert and ex-SAS member, Dave Thomas to find out what does.

“All the gadgets are mostly about collecting intelligence,” he tells us. “That’s the core of the job.

“There are bugging devices like this one,” he says as he opens up his briefcase full of wires and connectors to clutch a microphone no bigger than a pin head between his thumb and forefinger.

“This little thing is sensitive enough to pick up all the audio from a whole room in all directions. All you need is a battery and transmitter and you can hide this thing just about anywhere - in the light, under the table, in the plant pot but then you might have to worry about someone watering it.”

Spotting a niche in the market, Thomas set up a business 17 years ago providing surveillance services for blue chip companies and has been using the same techniques as those he learned on the governmental side of the trade.

“We’ve followed everyone from terrorists to footballers to journalist, corporate fraudsters, movie stars and all to find out what they’re doing, what they’re up to, where they’re going, who they’re meeting, who they’re getting their drugs from, where they’re getting their weapons from and whatever else there is to know.”

The very cliche of non-descript, Thomas sits across the table at our secret location regaling Pocket-lint with story after story of close call and narrow escape and just how he and his team managed to extract the necessary information from their targets but, despite the moments of action, he admits it’s nothing like TV’s Spooks.

“More and more surveillance is done remotely these days. It’s very difficult to even follow someone effectively in a car especially when you’re talking about a city like London with all the junctions and congestion and traffic lights everywhere. There’s just no point in risking being spotted by your target when you can plant a tracking device on the underside of their vehicle instead.”

Thomas reaches back into his box of tricks and pulls out a palm sized, fairly innocent looking cream box that we're very pleased to hear is put inside an waterproof case with some strong magnets and, yes, stuck just under the chassis. The device sends back a signal via GPS to  a smartphone app where you can either wait for it to check in or request locations at will.

“Mobiles phones have been a revelation. They’ve got absolutely everything you need on there,” he tells us as he waves the iPhone in his hand.

“We can be much more remote than we’ve ever been. I can park a car on the street in Paris with a camera in it and see a video stream of what’s going on on the other side of the world. In the world of spying and surveillance, that’s absolutely fantastic.

“Obviously, mobiles have got a camera on them and can record audio onto a hard disk. One nice thing we’ve done with some of our phones is adapted them so that the camera actually points out of the top edge rather than the lens on the back. That way your subject won’t notice that when you’re looking at a text message on your screen, you’re actually getting footage of them.”

Of course, the mobile phone doesn’t have to be yours for it to be a hugely important tool in espionage. Thomas reminds us of that phone hacking or even just going through someone’s rubbish to find an itemised bill of their calls is a simple enough way to gather all the intelligence that’s often needed.

“There’s software freely available to download that scrapes all the information of the pictures you take, the numbers from calls you make and receive, the texts you send, and uploads it all to a website. All that can be set up with just half an hour with your target’s phone.”

And it’s not only mobiles that have made the spy’s life a whole lot easier. Thomas's eyes light up as we talk about Facebook, Twitter, Google Maps, Google Street View, e-mail and just about every other application since the age of web 2.0 proving you don’t even need any particularly specialised equipment these days.

“Take this, for example,” he says as he dives back into the leather attache case to bring out what appears to be a pen before he points to the two tiny holes near the top.

“That’s a video camera and microphone that’s activated when you push the button at the top to get the nib out. It records to flash memory, lasts about half an hour and even has a USB adapter inside. You can pick that up at Maplin for £70. The best surveillance gadgets are the ones that are already available in your environment so that they don’t look out of place.”

So, if phones, tiny cameras, microphones and other modern technology have made the possibilities for espionage so much broader does that mean that Thomas feels he has every tool he needs?

“Hmm, that’s a tough one. Devices could always be more compact and have even better battery life. So, if I could invent any spy gadget it would probably be something the size of a penny that you could stick under a table and walk out and that would last three months and could transmit anywhere in the world. That would be about perfect. That and an invisibility cloak but if someone comes up with one of those, I’ll probably be out of business.”

You can find out what it’s like to be a spy yourself at Thompson other business Spy Games in Miton Keynes where you can be an agent for a day taking part in hostage rescue, diamond heists, dodging laser beams, advanced driving skills, how to follow somebody and to how to evade capture.

If that sounds like too much then go down to the video shop, buy yourself a copy of Red on DVD and watch the likes of Bruce Willis, John Malkovich and Helen Mirren do all the spying for you.