Last month, a small Georgia company that sells equipment to law enforcement sent out a jovial email to its private mailing list, with special summer offers and a copy of its 2020 catalogue of covert surveillance tools.
June had seen what was, by some estimates, the largest protest movement in U.S. history. Tens of millions of people filled streets across the country to protest the police killing of Black Americans, sparking unprecedented momentum for defunding the police and intense scrutiny of police tactics and technology.
Advanced Covert Technology has been selling surveillance tools to police for 21 years, and its latest catalog is an example of the expensive, Hollywood-style gadgets being marketed to law enforcement agencies out of the public eye.
For $2,250, ACT offered a fake Monster energy drink can—”fully functional as an energy drink”— equipped with a hidden high gain-microphone. The company also sells a bugged $1 bill with 16 gigabytes of audio storage for $1,875, and a chewing tobacco container—also fully functional—equipped with both a microphone and a high-quality camera, for $1,650.
Other items include fake vape pens, sports caps, gift cards, and car keys equipped with cameras or microphones, as well as band t-shirts from artists ranging from Johnny Cash to Jane’s Addiction designed to hold spy cameras.
ACT co-founder Ryan Mitchell told Motherboard that the devices were intended for use by undercover officers, and claimed that publishing details of their existence would endanger the lives of police officers. “It’s very serious that it doesn’t get out what this equipment is,” Mitchell said. “[Undercover officers] could get killed if the bad guy finds out what the equipment is. You are jeopardizing somebody’s life.”
From 2015 through 2019, there were no recorded killings of officers while performing undercover work, according to annual statistics reported by police departments around the country and compiled by the FBI.
A quick Google search reveals that very similar equipment is available for sale to civilians through electronics retailers. For example, New York City staple B&H sells an assortment of spy gear posing as common household items, including a fake Monster Energy drink, for a fraction of the price ACT is offering to law enforcement.
The 36-page ACT catalog was distributed the week of June 20th to a private mailing list, according to Dave Maass, a senior investigative researcher for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who shared the catalog with Motherboard after it was sent to him by a person on the mailing list. Maass said that he did not have a complete list of the recipients, but that it appeared to be a broad group, rather than a select set of elite undercover officers.
Maass, who studies police technology, said surveillance companies commonly claim that informing the public about their wares will put police in harm’s way, without providing any evidence that’s the case.
“When you have companies going to police departments and hawking their wares and then you have police department’s acquiring them without a public process, that’s a problem,” Maass told Motherboard. “These things are super expensive. If you’re going to spend several grand on a gift card that has a recording device in it, is that a good use of money? Is it a good return on investment?”
It is unclear whether any police departments or private companies have purchased the specific items in the 2020 catalog, but ACT has previously sold more than $60,000 of audio and video equipment to federal agencies, including the Department of Justice and U.S. Army, according to spending records. The company has also provided equipment to local police in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, and other states, according to readily available purchase reports and check registers.
Through its other co-founder, Charlie Fuller, ACT also has a cozy relationship with the International Association of Undercover Officers (IAUO), a membership and training organization. Fuller, a former agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, is the current executive director of the IAUO, and ACT is the only surveillance equipment vendor the IAUO promotes on its website.In its catalog, ACT returns the favor, encouraging customers to also enroll in Fuller’s undercover training courses, which cost as much as $475 per person.
“It’s fairer to the bad guys,” Fuller told Motherboard about ACT’s spy equipment. “It’s great for the court system. It doesn’t put my word against your word, it puts my video against your video. It doesn’t get any more fair than that.”
“We used to wear tape recorders and hide them on our body, and now they’ve got all this nice stuff,” he added. “What’s more covert than that? What’s more Hollywood than that?”