Sucheta Dalal :The spying game
Sucheta Dalal

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The spying game  

December 12, 2006

Spying has always had a certain cachet, a "cool" factor that's stood the test of time.

You need only think of James Bond, the most infamous fictional spy, to see that discovering dirty secrets and catching "bad" guys is both exhilarating and satisfying -- even if it's not always honourable.

People used to leave spying to the professionals -- detectives, cops and investigative journalists. But new technologies are making it easier for average Joes to take snooping into their own hands, be it to catch a cheating spouse or confirm suspicions that an employee is stealing.

What has driven us to become so distrustful? Why has spying on others become so appealing?

As Ian Kerr, Canada Research Chair in Ethics, Law and Technology, points out, we're living in a post-9/11 society of fear, combined with a culture that's used to watching people in "private" spheres -- most notably on reality TV shows like Wife Swap or Big Brother.

Plus, governments and corporations are using surveillance techniques more often.


In Canada, anti-terror legislation makes it easier for government officials to eavesdrop on unsuspecting citizens. While a recent study by Queen's University revealed that 48% of Canadians believe surveillance laws are too intrusive, there isn't any sign of them being eased. If anything, they're headed the other way.

"We're seeing a change in the face of surveillance and there's an idea of trading privacy for security," says Kerr, who teaches law at the University of Ottawa. "With new technologies, we have less ability to expect privacy, even in the home."

Surveillance equipment has also become a lot cheaper. In the early '90s, a small "hidden" camera would run $800-$1,000. Now a smaller, higher-quality model can be had for less than $200.

With surveillance becoming cheaper, easier to use and more common in everyday life, the popularity of spying products continues to increase.

Last year, sales of commercial surveillance devices in North America hit about 2.7 million units; 42% were government purchases.

Surveillance equipment supplier Ursula Lebana, owner of a business called Spytech, joined the trend in 1991, when she opened her first store in Toronto.

Lebana sells to private investigators and reporters, but her main customers are businesspeople concerned about internal theft and homeowners who want to keep a careful eye on caretakers.

"It never hurts to double-check," Lebana says about installing cameras in your home. "Sometimes you're hiring total strangers and you want to make sure your children are taken care of properly."

Lebana opened a Spytech store in Ottawa last week. The shop carries a wide variety of wireless cameras, voice recorders, GPS tracking systems and other personal safety and detective-like devices.

Canada's extensive privacy and stalking laws make spying harder -- and more complicated -- than new technologies would have people believe.


Private investigator Gary Miles says it can be both foolish and dangerous for someone to take an investigation into their own hands.

"Some try to do it themselves and screw up big-time because they're not aware of the regulations and laws," he says.

"The last thing you really want when you're trying to 'get' somebody is for them to come back and nail you with criminal harassment charges."

The Personal Information Protection Act states that a person or organization cannot collect information about someone's identity without them knowing or without their consent. This excludes a person's name, title, or address or phone number of an employee.

You are allowed, however, to put a camera in your own home without telling anyone, but not if you have a live-in nanny. You can also record phone calls to which you're a party without informing the other person.

Smaller technologies, such as wireless cameras, don't change privacy laws, says Kerr, but they do make it more difficult for people to know when they're being watched.

"For anyone who wants to use surveillance inconspicuously, it's becoming easier and easier," he says.

And it seems more people do want to spy on the people around them. As Lebana points out, the home is frequently becoming a place to keep a close watch on spouses, neighbours, children, maids, nannies and the like.

Lebana cites the example of a customer who kept coming home to find her garden in a haphazard state. The woman installed a camera outside and discovered her neighbour was coming over each day and stomping on her flowers.

Another customer caught two car vandals after he installed a driveway alert system.

Along with its surveillance and security equipment, Spytech also sells an array of other "spy"merchandise, including voice stress analyzers --a tamer version of the lie detector -- and a popular product for suspicious spouses called the CheckmateSemen Detection Kit.


Lebana says the kit is one of the first steps people take if they suspect their partner of cheating. She also cites a case where a father used the kit to check if his 13-year-old daughter was sexually active.

Miles says he's seeing a growing number of clients who start an investigation on their own, and then come to him or one of his colleagues after they've gathered evidence and are unsure of how to proceed.

"They'll get to a certain point and say, 'now what do I do? I've got all this information, where do I go with it?'" Miles says.

He adds that in many of these situations, people have crossed a legal line without realizing it and should seek advice from a lawyer.

Besides the possible legal ramifications, many people wonder why it's wrong to use cameras and other snooping devices if they can catch so-called bad guys, such as thieves, vandals, child abusers and cheaters.

Kerr says the deterioration of trust that drives people to spy is problematic because our society is becoming a place where relationships are no longer formed or founded on trust.

"We now satisfy ourselves by saying we can replace the trust," he says. "We don't have to trust people, we can simply use the technology, and as long as we monitor that, we can get the same outcome."

Others, such as Lebana, argue it's better to be safe than sorry.

She points to the scenario of children who frequent on-line chat rooms and are at risk of being targeted by pedophiles.

Lebana touts an Internet tracking program that allows customers to see what websites another person is visiting and read their e-mails and other personal exchanges.

(Note: The person must own the computer they're spying on.)

"It's not about the trust," Lebana says. "You want to protect your kids."

She points out that several of her clients have come back to report that their employee was indeed stealing or their babysitter was negligent.

"I think, if it's my children, I would want to know what's going on," she says.

"If nothing is going on, at least I have peace of mind and I feel good."



-- Sucheta Dalal