A surveillance vendor that works with U.S. government agencies, such as the FBI, DEA, and ICE, is marketing spying capabilities to local police departments, including cameras that are hidden inside a tombstone, a baby car seat, and a vacuum cleaner.
The brochure highlights some of the capabilities on offer to law enforcement agencies, from the novel to the sometimes straight-up bizarre.
"I think one of the biggest concerns I have is about the cost/size/capabilities of these devices. They keep getting cheaper, smaller and more capable all the time, and it’s unlikely that only law enforcement will be the only actors using them," Freddy Martinez, a policy analyst from government accountability group Open The Government who obtained the brochure through a public records request told Motherboard in an email. The public records request was filed with the Irvine Police Department in California. Beryl Lipton of the government transparency nonprofit MuckRock also obtained the documents using a FOIA request.
Special Services Group, the vendor behind the brochure, does not advertise its products publicly. Its logo is the floating-eye-in-pyramid logo seen on the back of the $1 bill, which conspiracy theorists associate with the Illuminati, and the company's slogan is "Constant Vigilance." The company is so secretive that, when asked for comment for this story, it threatened VICE with legal action if we published this article.
The brochure is available here, starting from page 93.
"Due to the critical missions of our customers, we have chosen not to place our product information on our website. Please use the contact section of our site to request more information," the company's website reads.
Special Services Group says on its website that it caters to law enforcement and government agencies, but not necessarily exclusively; the website adds it also works with "select clients."
The brochure, dubbed "Black Book" by its authors, contains a cornucopia of surveillance devices.
Do you have any other interesting surveillance brochures? We'd love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Joseph Cox securely on Signal on +44 20 8133 5190, Wickr on josephcox, OTR chat on email@example.com, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
"The Tombstone Cam is our newest video concealment offering the ability to conduct remote surveillance operations from cemeteries," one section of the Black Book reads. The device can also capture audio, its battery can last for two days, and "the Tombstone Cam is fully portable and can be easily moved from location to location as necessary," the brochure adds. Another product is a video and audio capturing device that looks like an alarm clock, suitable for "hotel room stings," and other cameras are designed to appear like small tree trunks and rocks, the brochure reads.
The "Shop-Vac Covert DVR Recording System" is essentially a camera and 1TB harddrive hidden inside a vacuum cleaner. "An AC power connector is available for long-term deployments, and DC power options can be connected for mobile deployments also," the brochure reads. The description doesn't say whether the vacuum cleaner itself works. It appears to be the same or similar product that the DEA purchased from Special Services Group in 2018, as Quartz previously reported.
One of the company's "Rapid Vehicle Deployment Kits" includes a camera hidden inside a baby car seat. "The system is fully portable, so you are not restricted to the same drop car for each mission," the description adds.
"Certainly the idea of a 'Tombstone Camera' seems pretty far out there. I don’t think I’ve seen a baby seat as a covert camera before either," Martinez added.
The so-called "K-MIC In-mouth Microphone & Speaker Set" is a tiny Bluetooth device that sits on a user's teeth and allows them to "communicate hands-free in crowded, noisy surroundings" with "near-zero visual indications," the Black Book adds.
Other products include more traditional surveillance cameras and lenses as well as tools for surreptitiously gaining entry to buildings. The "Phantom RFID Exploitation Toolkit" lets a user clone an access card or fob, and the so-called "Shadow" product can "covertly provide the user with PIN code to an alarm panel," the brochure reads.
When Motherboard asked Special Services Group for comment, the company did not respond. Shortly later though, a lawyer representing the company wrote a strongly worded legal email, demanding Motherboard not report on the brochure. The lawyer claimed that the brochure was protected under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), a set of rules that regulates the export of munitions, as well as copyright.
"THIS IS NOTICE THAT THE INFORMATION CONTAINED IN THIS FILE MAY INCLUDE COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL, CONFIDENTIAL TRADE SECRET INFORMATION AND/OR ITAR RESTRICTED INFORMATION WHOSE RELEASE MAY SUBJECT THE RELEASING PARTIES TO CIVIL AND POSSIBLY CRIMINAL LIABILITY AND WE WILL ASSIST IN THE PROSECUTION TO THE FULLEST EXTENT OF THE LAW BOTH IN THE UNITED STATES, THE UNITED KINGDOM AND ABROAD, OF ANY PERSON WHO KNOWINGLY DISSEMENATES, FACILITATES AND/OR RELEASES THIS INFORMATION IN VIOLATION OF THE LAW," one part of the email, in bold and all caps, reads.
The lawyer sent a separate email to MuckRock, the transparency nonprofit, also threatening legal action. The lawyer said that if Motherboard published this article, which, again, is an advertisement and promotional catalog for the company's services, it would put law enforcement at risk. It suggested "recent world events," perhaps referring to the heightening of tensions in Iran, as a particular concern. The lawyer provided no specifics or evidence to support the claim that publishing a list of cameras the company sells would put anyone in danger.
In 2014 the U.S. Secret Service paid Special Services Group over $820,000 for "Mobile Video Platform Kits."
"Please understand that while I understand a desire for government transparency, the release of the information could result in very serious jeopardy to the lives of law enforcement and military users of the technology RIGHT NOW IN PARTICULAR DUE TO RECENT WORLD EVENTS … the responsibility for any resulting harm should you go ahead and assist in the dissemination of this information to a wider public audience, while we may never know exactly where or how it damages innocent people, will fall squarely on your shoulders," the lawyer wrote.
When releasing this information to the public, the Irvine Police Department had a law firm called Rutan & Tucker perform a full disclosure review. The city's lawyers determined that some separate documents not associated with Special Services Group needed to be redacted or held back for security reasons, but ultimately determined that Special Services Group's "Black Book" was safe to be released and that publishing it was in the "public interest."
Special Services Group has relationships with a wide range of U.S. agencies. In all, the company has had deals worth around $2.6 million with over two dozen U.S. agencies, according to public procurement data.
In 2014 the U.S. Secret Service paid Special Services Group over $820,000 for "Mobile Video Platform Kits." The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) paid the company over a million dollars across several years for surveillance cameras, the records show. Special Services Group also sold GPS trackers to ICE, the records add.
In 2017 the company provided the Porterville Police Department in California a quote for surveillance cameras.
Cliff Emery, Special Services Group's co-founder and CEO, sits on the board of directors of the Washington chapter of the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA), a nonprofit focused on national security. Special Services Group exhibits at high profile law enforcement conferences, such as the UK's annual Security and Policing event.
The brochure and the company's successful government contracts show that, even though some of these devices are out of the ordinary, there is certainly a market and appetite among law enforcement for covert surveillance devices. The brochure reflects another one from British surveillance vendor Cobham, which included a camera housed inside a trash can.
The City of Irvine did not respond to a request for comment.
Update: This piece has been updated to mention that the DEA bought a camera hidden in a vacuum cleaner from Special Services Group.
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