Spyware big seller in China

Published 6 March 2009

The Chinese government no longer has a monopoly over domestic spying; sales of James Bond-like hidden surveillance tools such as cameras disguised as pens or buttons to companies and individuals soar

The Chinese government does not have a monopoly on spying here anymore. Despite an official ban on James Bond-like hidden surveillance tools such as cameras disguised as pens or buttons, sales of such products in China are soaring. Experts attribute the trend to the growth of private investigation firms, the improved quality of such gadgets — and, more generally, a broad disregard for privacy rights in a country where the communist government openly monitors its citizens to control what they say, read, and write. “Everybody feels unsafe now,” says Liu Renwen, a law professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a top government think tank. He calls covert video and audio surveillance “an ever more serious problem in China” and has urged the government to pass a privacy law that was drafted six years ago - but has yet to be enacted.

USA Today’s Calum MacLeod writes that many of the gadgets are made in China’s southern Guangdong province, where they are exported to countries around the world, including the United States. “Our sunglasses with camera are easy to carry and look very cool to wear,” boasts Kevin Chen of Lanmda Technology, a specialist spy camera maker. At Chinavasion, a large online retailer, the “secret agent pen with camcorder” is the most popular item sold, company representative Rose Li says.

Both companies, based in the city of Shenzhen, say they sell such products only abroad because the Chinese government forbids private citizens from using hidden cameras. “There would be big demand in China, but we are not allowed to sell here yet,” Li says. Somebody is doing it anyway. Despite multiple raids by Chinese authorities, unbranded spy products are easy to find in China’s cities. In December, Beijing police raided the Sea Dragon Electronics City, one of China’s largest appliance malls, seizing equipment and busting more than twenty private investigation companies who use spy equipment.

This week, several stores at Sea Dragon still offered spy pens and other covert filming devices. “This is the fifth generation of secret camera pen in the past year alone,” says Li Yan, one of multiple vendors in the nine-story mall selling the device for about $40, depending on the buyer’s bargaining skills. “Sales are great,” she says. “I don’t ask why customers need these products, and they don’t tell me.”

CMacLeod writes that China is trying to crack down on its citizens’ cameras at the same time it’s installing more of its own. The government has put up more than 300,000 security cameras in Beijing alone as part of a seven-year project to expand surveillance around the country. Sales of surveillance cameras — excluding illegal spy tools — leapt 25 percent in 2008, says Liu Cunxin, deputy secretary-general of the China Security and Protection Industry Association.

Richard Chace, CEO of the Virginia-based Security Industry Association, an industry group, says that without urgent action to stop the sale of private spy gear, China risks more incidents of “vigilante justice” as people take matters into their own hands. “The government can’t keep up with the technology. They need to figure out a balance between what their politics and culture will allow and what they are willing to let their people do,” says Chace, a regular visitor to China. Or, as Liu Cunxin puts it, “The advance of technology does not always mean progress.”