Cameras have a number of applications in the world of security and espionage. Cameras can be used for conducting surveillance, for instance, an activity that may require neither proximity to the subject nor even a human operator. More intriguing and wide-ranging, however, are the uses of the camera in up-close work by intelligence operatives. Such situations require human ingenuity, not only for designing effective photographic equipment, but also for concealing the camera and its operations. Intelligence personnel have used cameras to photograph individuals and their activities, as well as buildings and installations. A significant subcategory of espionage photography involves the copying of documents, often with special cameras, although sometimes with ordinary equipment.


A camera functions by focusing light through a lens onto a surface coated with light-sensitive chemicals. The concept of the camera dates back to the Renaissance idea of

A circa 1938 top secret spy camera made to resemble a contemporary German matchbox. AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS.
A circa 1938 top secret spy camera made to resemble a contemporary German matchbox.

the camera obscura, a small, dark chamber into which light was permitted only through pinholes. During the early nineteenth century, inventors perfected the camera obscura to make the prototype of the modern camera, but early photography was a cumbersome affair characterized by large, boxy cameras and slow exposures. It is for this reason that most photographs from the American Civil War—the first conflict chronicled in depth by photojournalists—tend to be stills rather than action shots.

Only in the twentieth century was it possible to build cameras useful for work in espionage. Particularly after World War II, the number of possible camera types suited either to speed, concealment, range, or photographic resolution proliferated along with the many uses to which espionage and security organizations applied them. Today, the principal uses for cameras in the security and espionage context are copying documents, capturing activities of individuals at a close range, or conducting surveillance on large groups over large areas from a distance.

The last of these activities, while certainly a significant part of espionage and security operations, typically lacks the tactile qualities popularly associated with the use of cameras by spies. Surveillance aircraft such as the U–2 and SR–71 Blackbird, as well as satellites of the KH or "keyhole" series, carried sophisticated cameras for longrange photography of missile installations, weapons factories, and other facilities. In such a situation, the human operator of the camera plays a lesser role than the technology behind its operation, and that of the craft that keeps it aloft many thousands of feet or miles above Earth's surface.

Surveillance cameras in daily life. Similarly, with closerange surveillance and security cameras that operate automatically, the human operator is of little significance. Still, there is a great deal of immediacy and intimate contact between camera and subject—especially because the unwitting subject seldom knows the degree to which he or she is under surveillance. In modern times, Americans have become accustomed to ordinary security cameras in stores and other businesses, particularly those whose contents have high monetary value. According to the Security Industry Association, by 2003, there were some two-million closed-circuit television systems in operation, most of them operated by private businesses for security purposes, in the United States. CCS International, a security company, estimated that the average person in Manhattan was photographed 73 to 75 times a day. Often this happened when the individual was not aware of the surveillance, even when the camera itself was in plain view. That camera might well be a dummy, with the real camera photographing an individual's activities from another angle.

Although civil libertarians protested this proliferation of security cameras, they are unlikely to disappear any time soon. J. P. Freeman, a firm that performs marketing research for the security industry, estimated in 2002 that the market for digital video surveillance equipment was growing at the rate of fifteen percent per year, particularly noticeable gains during the early twenty-first century recession. Additionally, in the heightened climate of awareness that followed the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Americans were less likely than ever to react to potential violations of privacy.

In communist Eastern Europe. If surveillance cameras are ubiquitous in a democratic nation such as the United States, they are pervasive in closed societies—assuming that the nation possesses the financial means to watch its citizens with electronic eyes. Certainly this was true in East Germany, by far the most prosperous nation in the history of communism, where per-capita incomes in the 1980s ran higher than those of non-communist Greece. The East German Stasi (short for das Ministerium für Staatssicherheit or Ministry of State Security) frequently monitored patrons of public lodgings through the use of a Czech-made surveillance camera with a German T1–340 lens. Made to fit into a special cylinder built into the hotel wall, the camera could be operated using a remote shutter release. This piece of equipment, used to spy on hotel patrons, was a variety of the German robot camera developed prior to World War II.

Surveillance Cameras in Espionage

First used by the Nazis in 1934, the robot could snap multiple exposures without requiring manual winding. Originally used by the German air force to rapidly photograph the destruction of targets, it later became a favorite of Nazi intelligence services. The designs of the Nazi era culminated in the Star 50, which could snap 50 exposures in rapid succession. After the war, intelligence agents on either side of the Iron Curtain used robot cameras.

Made to be concealed and, if necessary, operated from a remote location, the robot was ideal for surveillance. Specific varieties of Star 50 were designed to be hidden in handbags, while the robot Star II was flat enough to fit in a special belt concealed by a trench coat. A false coat button covered the camera lens, and the manufacturers provided an entire matching set of buttons so that the user could replace those already on the trench coat if they did not match the false one. The robot Star II could also fit neatly into a briefcase.

The Soviet KGB developed their own variation on the robot, the F21, in 1948. Small—about the size of a hotel soap bar—and quiet, the F21 was ideal for concealment. At various times, Soviet designers adapted the F21 to hide it in belt buckles, jackets, umbrellas, and even camera cases. In the latter instance, the spy, posing as a tourist, would carry the camera case open and slung around the neck. The visible camera was a dummy; mounted on the side of the case was an F21 that took pictures at a 90-degree angle to the lens of the dummy camera.

Some other significant surveillance models in the history of Cold War espionage include the British Mark 3 automatic camera. Developed in the 1950s and still in use during the 1990s, the Mark 3 had a chamber so large it could hold enough film for 250 35mm exposures. Sometimes intelligence operatives needed moving pictures rather than stills, and for this, KGB relied on a movie version of the F21, developed in the 1960s. The camera was made to be hidden in a coat, using the false button technique applied with the robot camera.

Copy cameras. To copy documents, intelligence services required special cameras. An ordinary camera could theoretically be used, but would have difficulty in obtaining readable images. A much better option is to use a camera and accessories specially made for that purpose. A camera made specifically for copying documents has a high degree of photographic resolution, and is constructed in such a way as to be operated with a remote shutter release in order to avoid shaking the camera. Usually, the equipment would also include a stand of some kind that would both keep the camera steady and hold it fixed in place some distance from the documents being copied. Finally, because copying by an intelligence agent would most likely be a clandestine activity, it would be necessary to house all this equipment in a package that could easily be concealed.

One camera that fit the bill handsomely was built for the StB, the intelligence service of communist Czechoslovakia. Made to fit into an unobtrusive-looking wooden box, the kit included a Meopta copy camera, lights, a power plug, and a four-legged stand. The camera sat atop the stand, pointed downward. By pressing a button on a shutter release cable, the operator could photograph documents, which were illuminated by light bulbs fitted into housings at the base of the stand.

Both American and Soviet intelligence services used kits that resembled miniature copier machines. The American model was made to fit into an attaché case, while the Soviets' Yelka C–64 copy camera had the appearance of a thick book and, therefore, was unlikely to raise immediate suspicions.

Particularly ingenious was the Soviet rollover camera, disguised as a notebook. The undercover agent would regularly carry a real notebook to work, and use it often. Then, when it came time to make copies of documents, the agent would bring the rollover camera notebook, which was identical in appearance to the real notebook. In order to photograph a document, the agent would run the spine of the notebook carefully back and forth across the documents to be copied. Inside the spine were wheels that activated the camera, which was hidden, along with a battery-powered light source, inside the notebook.

Working without a copy camera. Perhaps the greatest resourcefulness of all was required for those situations in which the agent had no special equipment other than an ordinary camera. Victor Ostrovsky, of Israel's Mossad, developed a method for copying that used only a standard camera with a shutter release, a few thick books, and a couple of lamps. The document would be taped to the front a book, which would be set standing on end, facing the camera. The latter would be placed atop one or more books lying flat, and fixed in place with an ordinary adhesive, such as chewing gum. On either side, desk lamps would provide concentrated lighting.

Another setup could be used when the agent needed to copy large amounts of documents, but could use only a camera and standard office equipment. Books would be stacked in two towers of equal height—perhaps 18 inches or so—with enough space between them to lay a document flat. Bridging the tops of the "towers" would be two parallel rulers, spaced almost the width of an ordinary 35mm camera. The camera would be taped to the rulers, and lamps placed on either side of the document. Then, documents could be run through one after the other, and a high volume of information recorded in a short time.


Babington-Smith, Constance. Evidence in Camera: The Story of Photographic Intelligence in World War II. Newton Abbott, England: David and Charles, 1974.

Melton, H. Keith. The Ultimate Spy Book. New York: DK Publishing, 1996.

Murphy, Dean E. "As Security Cameras Sprout, Someone's Always Watching." New York Times (September 29, 2002).

Siljander, Raymond P. Applied Surveillance Photography. Springfield, IL: Thomas, 1975.


Cameras, Miniature
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Privacy: Legal and Ethical Issues

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