Surveillance is getting cheaper and easier:

Two artists have revealed Conversnitch, a device they built for less than $100 that resembles a lightbulb or lamp and surreptitiously listens in on nearby conversations and posts snippets of transcribed audio to Twitter. Kyle McDonald and Brian House say they hope to raise questions about the nature of public and private spaces in an era when anything can be broadcast by ubiquitous, Internet-connected listening devices.

This is meant as an art project to raise awareness, but the technology is getting cheaper all the time.

The surveillance gadget they unveiled Wednesday is constructed from little more than a Raspberry Pi miniature computer, a microphone, an LED and a plastic flower pot. It screws into and draws power from any standard bulb socket. Then it uploads captured audio via the nearest open Wi-Fi network to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing platform, which McDonald and House pay small fees to transcribe the audio and post lines of conversation to Conversnitch’s Twitter account.

Consumer spy devices are now affordable by the masses. For $54, you can buy a camera hidden in a smoke detector. For $80, you can buy one hidden in an alarm clock. There are many more options.

Posted on April 23, 2014 at 2:33 PM24 Comments


Davi Ottenheimer April 23, 2014 3:20 PM

My favorite part of this architecture is the Wi-Fi device drawing power from a light-socket. I’ve thought for many years that a network fabric should be merged with lighting infrastructure, since the two seem to serve similar purposes — illuminating our spaces. The artists market it as surveillance to draw press and attention (ironically, really) but it could just as easily be described as technology to help with learning or knowledge.

B. D. Johnson April 23, 2014 3:29 PM

And yet people still get worked up because they think Google Glass users are out to covertly record them…

Tom April 23, 2014 3:33 PM

I’ve never been able to listen in on people’s conversations like most people apparently can.

I wouldn’t mind experiencing this a little bit…

Anura April 23, 2014 3:33 PM

Nanobots will become the dominant surveillance device in the next 50-100 years. Air-gapped system inside a faraday cage in a sound-proof room, under 10 meters of concrete? No problem, they’ll burrow right through the concrete, tap into your computer, build a recording device into the desk, record the data in pieces, and carry it right back out.

But they will also cure all disease. Technology: the best and worst thing to happen to humanity..

Kyle McDonald April 23, 2014 3:38 PM

The tech is absolutely getting cheaper (and easier) all the time. I’m still surprised at how many people overlook “Social Turkers” which just used the Ustream iOS app and Mechanical Turk. No custom code required. Though now it is available as an all-in-one app with Crowdpilot.

Thanks for the mention!

vas pup April 23, 2014 3:53 PM

@Bruce and @all respected bloggers. White noise generators/jammers of different range of power (based on area to be protected)should allegedly prevent any type of microphone to get/intercept voice signal even outside (in open air) being placed next to persons involved in conversation, but Clive’s expert opinion would be the best input on subject matter – I guess.

Benni April 23, 2014 6:15 PM

I think that bugs are getting cheaper is not true. Theremin’s bug: was cheap even at the time it was first build (around 1945). Ok, the storage and the computer assisted analysis of the communications has been getting enormously cheaper nowadays, but the radar bugs are probably as cheap as they always were.

Figureitout April 23, 2014 9:44 PM

–Software-Defined Radio scares me more than just capturing human audible signals; it also happens to be very cool and fun. Think about all the RF one uses in a typical day; those signals can be captured easier and easier, I’m so amazed at some of these tiny dongles and of course the sound cards. It’s going to be fun for a while until something is done about RF security.

Slightly on-topic:
–I’m not sure (though I suspect it’s not RF) what’s happening to a local DJ’s computer. It’s so funny, multiple times now the computer has changed songs randomly and one time complete shutdown. Then an awkward moment live on air, “Bro I don’t know what’s up w/ my computer”. “I didn’t do that bro!” I suspect it’s just malware that’s dug a nice hole or some more benign explanation like crap hardware and not an active attack; but it’s a good laugh on the way home.

herman April 24, 2014 3:48 AM

The problem is still planting the bug at the scene of the crime. It is better to bounce a laser pointer off a window pane or a picture/painting or even the leaves of a plant next to the targets and demodulate the audio from the reflection. This way, the bug can be in a more secure position across the street.

kronos April 24, 2014 7:59 AM

@Anura, I had a similar idea after watching the second Terminator movie. My idea for the next in the franchise was small liquid metal robots that would easily squeeze under doors and maybe through keyholes. That way almost anywhere you go you would be vulnerable. Later I read “Micro” by Michael Crighton and of course his treatment of tiny weapons was far more advanced than what I came up with.

But the female terminator in the third movie was far more attractive than my idea. 😉

CallMeLateForSupper April 24, 2014 8:53 AM

I am neither amused nor favorably impressed. Art, indeed. These dudes could have accomplished their aledged goal of awareness raising (on perhaps a smaller scale) by planting inert devices clearly labeled “This innocuous thing is an evesdropping device”.

I think it’s sad that the venerable Raspberry Pi was, in a sense, sullied by this brain fart.

Johannes Rexx April 24, 2014 12:49 PM

So what equipment have people used to scan for and locate these bugs? Those of us who are paranoid enough and have enough money might want to expand their skill set.

Andrew April 24, 2014 1:01 PM

Well, in some countries a common government surveillance practice is to bury tiny cameras inside walls leaving only a small hole for the lens with like 0.01 inches diameter. You need to be quite close and very careful to notice them with naked eyes…even harder to detect if they are connected to electrical system and don’t send wireless data.
(PS The detection gear is quite expensive and not always efficient.)

cinnamonb April 24, 2014 9:51 PM

I’m not amused either, Callmelateforsupper. I guess they’ve been brought up with no respect for others’ privacy. Sad. And sad anyone would even visit their twitter feed.

DB April 25, 2014 3:14 AM

Generally it’s not the device that’s an issue IMO, it’s the usage. With very few exceptions, most anything can be used to do terrible illegal things with, or good productive things with. Exceptions tend to be so big or terrible that they threaten to destroy mankind or ruin society as we know it or something terrible like that (like, oh, I dunno, spending trillions to build a tracking network that could record the location of every person and every conversation globally all the time, for example?)

What really needs to happen is people need to decide what kind of people they want to be, and what kind of society of people they want to have too. Then it becomes more obvious what we need to change about ourselves to get there. Don’t just laze around and let whatever happen, decide, and take control of your life. At least, what part that you can control.

Cheaper April 25, 2014 3:08 PM

@Andrew: “in some countries a common government surveillance practice is to bury tiny cameras inside walls leaving only a small hole for the lens”

Can you name these countries ?

DB April 25, 2014 3:42 PM


In China I saw a bulge under the wallpaper, with another thinner one running down from it (the wires), we made sure to “speak up” in that room… I’m guessing it was only audio though because if you ever closed your curtains someone would come knocking at the door just to visit and say “hi” and they’d kind of seem to be looking around… and if you looked out at the other apartment directly across the way, they’d immediately look away… It was very fishbowl-like to say the least.

Apparently 40% of the people in America seem to like this kind of thing, they should all move over there for a few years and try it first before making such claims.

Andrew April 26, 2014 6:02 AM


Some East European countries for example, but I’m sure the practice is spread much wider. Used mostly for office surveillance, for the rest the phones do all the job.

paul April 28, 2014 4:01 PM

Makes you think there should be an awfully good honeypot in Mechanical Turk requests. (This could have been done with way smaller than a raspberry pi — there are a couple of suitable wifi devices in the SD-card form factor.)

vas pup May 1, 2014 3:04 PM
This is link to interview with Ukrainian tycoon.
That is extract related to subject matter and as validation of my previous posting:”We talked for almost two hours and were interrupted only once, when we became aware of strange noises emanating from the long window sills.
One of Mr Firtash’s thick-set bodyguards lumbered over, opened the windows and removed two small boxes which had been placed there deliberately.
They were special devices creating the muffled sound of background “chatter” to prevent anyone eavesdropping on our conversation.
“We want to make sure this interview really is just for you,” joked one of the cluster of public relations consultants, advisers and business colleagues who sat in the room throughout the interview.”

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