A pinhole spy camera is a very small camera that can be planted in a room or hidden on a person to record and transmit happenings. The camera is called a “pinhole” camera because the filming lens, or eye, is typically about as big as the point of a pin. Pinhole cameras typically contain two components: a filming element and a transponder. The camera sees actions and sounds and relays them back to a larger recording device, usually a computer. Pinhole spy cameras were originally developed by government spies and espionage agents, but are now widely available commercially.
There is no one type of pinhole spy camera. The term covers a broad range of miniature surveillance equipment and miniature technology for spying. The primary purpose of a pinhole spy camera is to film people without them knowing.
Pinhole spy cameras were originally used by governments to obtain information from enemies, particularly during wartime. The cameras typically reflect the technology of the era. In the 1930s and 1940s, for instance, a pinhole spy camera was typically wired into the spy’s clothing, and the transponder was often attached. Cameras from this era were typically boxy, and required heavy clothing or coats to conceal. They sometimes only recorded images or sounds, but not always both. By the 2000s, the cameras were usually much smaller, and usually transmitted both sounds and images instantaneously over wireless networks.
Improvements in technology made the pinhole spy camera easier and less expensive to produce. With this came an increase in commercial and home use. The pinhole spy camera is an element of spy gear or spy equipment that is not typically hard to purchase and use individually. The cameras are frequently used in so-called “nanny cams,” which are placed on bookshelves or in stuffed animals to record a nanny’s activities with children, or the goings-on in a house while parents or homeowners are away.
The miniature cameras can also be planted in bedrooms, in cars, or in clothing to record activities — often with GPS (global positioning satellite) tracking. They can be used by companies for surveillance in offices or boardrooms, often hidden in picture frames or smoke detectors. Some hidden cameras simply transmit feeds to a centralized computer monitoring system, while others store the footage for later viewing and archiving.
In most countries, recording another person’s actions or speech can run afoul of privacy laws in some circumstances. Pinhole cameras placed in bathrooms or showers, for instance, are illegal in most countries. Some countries also require at least some awareness that filming could occur in order to use recordings from a pinhole spy camera as evidence in court.