Information is power. Money is biscuits. Sausages are members of the French aristocracy. One of these statements is timelessly true. And about to get even truer as cheap, hi-tech surveillance comes ever closer to home.
Mark Birdsall is editor of Eye Spy magazine, the go-to guide for amateur sleuthing enthusiasts. From his offices in the Yorkshire dales, he runs a tidy sideline in selling surveillance devices. He says he recently shipped a batch of cameras, hidden inside teddy-bears, to a school headmistress who wanted to know if one of their teachers was interfering with pupils. He also does a steady trade in solutions for parents anxious to see what their kids are up to on the internet. Much of his trade, though, is from suspicious spouses and jealous lovers. "They ask us for products they can pop in the office – on the computer," he enthuses.
Technology that seemed remote three years ago, when the News Of The World's phone-tapping allegations first broke, is now everyday stuff to a growing cabal of insiders. The NOTW allegedly cracked pin codes on voicemail services. Now, the technology is in place to do a lot more. And, in fact, in the past couple of years it's migrated from being in the hands of professional private investigators – the middlemen who've been power-broking it to Fleet Street – to the level of Maplins-style consumer electronics.
Rattle round Birdsall's web shop, and with a once-off outlay of between £200 and £500 you can clamp your jaws around someone's entire binary life and squeeze every last byte out of their privacy. Bag a webcammed-up wall clock (£90), monitoring software that will pull up the screen on your target's PC on yours in real-time (£90), a key-catcher dongle to display everything that they type (as low as £20), and a £300 "spy phone" that turns their mobile into a go-everywhere bugging device even when it's turned off – and you can utterly embed yourself in your quarry for the price of a week's holiday in Benidorm.
"In the last five years there's been an absolute boom," Birdsall burbles happily. "The Chinese have invested hundreds of millions of pounds in building up a manufacturing base for this sort of stuff. They take western-made components, reverse engineer them, then sell off generic versions for a tiny fraction of the original price. In terms of how big the industry is – it's worth billions..."
The former communist superpowers – China and Russia – have been channeling their genius for paranoia and their fast-and-loose feeling for information and privacy laws into a growth industry, both in spying on their own populations, and in tapping into the trade secrets of foreign competitors. "If you can see what your competitor is doing, if you can get that technology by computer espionage, you're going to do it, aren't you? It's big business. No longer do you have to break into an office. You can get there via the internet, and that's what those two in particular are doing."
Even before its massive "Green Dam" internet-filtering project, the Chinese state exploited a way to turn webcams against their owners – hacking into the cam's controller in order to turn it into the proverbial 1984 eyeball-in-the-corner-of-the-room.
In fact, the hardware element is increasingly becoming obsolete as the spying industry merely invents software to turn existing personal hardware against its owners. A simple program – sent to your mobile as a text message – will instruct it to hand over its central nervous system to a remote phone, allowing full-time listening in, whether on or off. "You can be in a meeting in Brisbane, and your phone can be off, but I can dial-into what's being said in the room from here in Skipton. The screen won't flicker. Nothing will change, except I'll be able to hear."
Much of this stuff is legal – though in a slightly roundabout fashion, via the old carving-knife argument. "If I sell you a carving knife, and you go out and stab someone, that's not my fault. It's the purpose that determines the legality. You're obviously not allowed to listen in as a third party without a wire-tapping order. The law on recording what someone is saying to you is grey. But if you own a computer, say in a business, you're legally allowed to dip into anything someone else does on it."
Even in the face of illegality, there are still back routes. What newspapers and companies often hope to achieve with espionage is to use these systems to generate leads, then find more legal ways to find out the same information. Or you just take it on the chin. "Well, all I would say is Fleet Street's a dirty business. To get a scoop is becoming more and more difficult because of the privacy laws that have come in recently. But if you're willing to accept a £200,000 fine for hacking into someone's private email, well, you've got to balance that against your sales jumping half a million."
Between victims and voyeurs, there remains an arms race. There are "sweeper" programs and voltage meters that are supposed to detect the latest grades of spyware. "It's come on so much now that self-preservation is fragile. It's no wonder celebrities and high-profile figures are being targeted." The solution? There is no solution. Live in a cave. Don't have any private data worth knowing. "Change your phone regularly," Birdsall suggests. "It seems like a pain – it is a pain. But it's the only way of at least slowing down the process."
And as the costs of getting into someone's life come down to shekels, some are predicting a growing normalisation of the morality of doing so. It's isolated at first. Maybe rather than buying the services of a private dick for £1000 a week, suspicious spouses buy a few devices for £500 and set up their own surveillance. But after that? The equipment's still in the house. One day you've got another noble reason to use it. The day after that, a less noble one. Just as the internet has given a certain type of personality enough of a veil of secrecy to start pouring out their pent-up bile on comment boards, so too this technology is about to give us the ability to transgress other social conventions in a very abstract, remote-controlled way.
In East Germany, when the Stasi's secret files were upended in 1989's Velvet Revolution, it was discovered that husband had been informing on wife, priests on parishioners, doctors on patients. The psychic fallout from these fault lines still dogs them. Now, technology is presenting us with enough rope. It's human nature that we will eventually hang ourselves.