Spy Vs. Spy Guys

The art of watching the watchers

Illustration by Bob AulMy best friend gave me a paper shredder for my birthday last November, and for a long time, I didn't know what to think about it. Then one day this summer, I met a shopkeeper named Joseph. He looked kinda like an Old Testament prophet—balding and bearded, dressed in sandals and blue jeans—except for his LA Fire Department T-shirt. "I've never been a fireman," he confided to me. "I just like the shirt."

That brand of honesty struck me as holy manish, too, and it turned out to be rather infectious. Soon I was telling Joseph the story of my best friend, my birthday and the paper shredder. It was a very short story—only one sentence long—but before it was over, Joseph's gray eyes seemed glazed with moisture, and his skin appeared to glisten and glow.

I was getting pretty bleary and sweaty, too. Hell, it must have been a hundred degrees in that shop. But the oppressive heat didn't quash Joseph's interest in my paper-shredder story. On the contrary, he was quite moved.

"That kind of gift makes a beautiful statement," Joseph told me, his voice soaked in sentimental appreciation. "Anyone who would give you a paper shredder for your birthday—for any occasion—obviously cares a lot about you. Because, you know, there are people out there that want the information on the paper you are shredding. There are people out there spying on you."

For a few moments, we silently perspired together in Joseph's little shop—Spy Guys Personal Protection, he calls the place. We scanned the small room's crowded inventory, taking in the assortment of cameras, stun guns, phones, scanners, tasers, tape recorders, electronic locks, splattering dyes, Winning a Street Knife Fightvideos, How to Be a Hit Man books, Star Trek movie posters and an autographed publicity photo of Wally George.

"This probably would qualify as an unusual store," Joseph allowed in the swelling tone of a proud proprietor. "First of all, because most 'spy-type' stores, when you walk in, everything is pristine, crystal, polished glass—everything in its spot. I don't keep that tight of a house. I wish I could sometimes, but I'm not really trying to impress a millionaire that I'm, you know, a real beautiful housekeeper or whatever. It's more about solving people's problems—helping them to get what they need to accomplish whatever they need to accomplish."

We fell silent again. The only sound was the rush of the traffic on Beach Boulevard, which, on this hot, dry Westminster day, reminded me of a Bunsen burner. I noticed that one of Joseph's display cases was an old Snapple refrigerator, unplugged and a little dusty, its cool-beverage racks now stacked with spy paraphernalia. It made me thirsty.

"Do you have paper shredders here?" I asked, forcing myself back to the subject, although I would rather have inquired about air conditioners.

"No, no paper shredders—none for sale, anyway," Joseph replied. There was a coy smile in his voice, but not on his face. "That's a market that's being served by the larger stores, like Staples and Office Depot and those. I think about stocking them once in a while, but my customers don't come to me for paper shredders anymore. Too mainstream."

A fiftysomething man wearing short pants and deck shoes, his white hair coifed and a belly distending his plaid shirt, sauntered into the store. He did a quick survey of the electronic equipment. Then, with the same sense of purpose—tentative but entitled—that might accompany the first-time purchase of a CD burner, he told Joseph he wanted to buy a hidden camera.

"For home or office?" Joseph asked.

"For my living room," the man replied.

"What do you need the camera to do?" Joseph continued.

"I need to videotape something I think is going on," said the man. "Well, I know it's going on, but I just need something that proves it's going on, you know, for sure."

"Is your living room well-lit or not?" Joseph asked. "Do you already have a security system of some sort that we can tie into? Or we could build it into a motion sensor—something like that might make sense."

"It needs to be hidden pretty well," the man said, "because I'm hiding it from a family member."

"Oh, no problem," Joseph said reassuringly. "We can incorporate it into your home décor, make it something that will be practical but also will work aesthetically, all those kinds of things."

Joseph and his customer spent some 20 minutes considering the strategies of living-room surveillance. They never mentioned ethics.

When the man left—passing the huge "Who's Spying on You?" banner that hangs outside the store—he seemed oblivious to the probability that he would soon be part of the answer to that question.

Joseph only gives you his first name because he is apprehensive about what you might do with information so personal as his last name. "I went into this business to help people get control of their lives," he insisted. "I believe I give back power to the people."

Joseph is concerned about the spying he believes is pervasive—from government tax forms to cameras at traffic lights. "And I would never use one of those Ralphs discount cards because they're just a means of knowing your purchasing habits and who knows what else?" he said. "I don't believe in credit cards because I think—and this is a personal opinion—that it's a very intelligent attempt to enslave the American people. When you rack up a lot of credit-card debt, somebody's got you by the chimichangas. If they determine at some point, 'Hey, we're going to declare martial law or declare all debts due and payable.' Then, if you can't pay, they could either enslave you or put you in jail or take everything you have or, you know, put some tattoo on your forehead or whatever."

Joseph is not as troubled by the potential invasions-of-privacy by Spy Guys' customers. His absolute Orwellian fear becomes more ambiguous when the surveillance equipment is in the hands of Little Sister, Stepfather and Jealous Husband. He points out that surveillance equipment can be used to gather evidence on vandals and burglars, sexual harassers and abusive baby sitters, obscene phone callers and sabotaging employees. He pointed out that there are devices that determine whether other people are spying on you.

"I basically stock what my customers need and want, what most of them are asking for, what they really need to solve their problem," Joseph said. "I don't ask any questions because I believe people expect and deserve a little anonymity surrounding these purchases. If you want to tell me your name is Tom Sawyer, hey, as far as I'm concerned, I'm Huckleberry Finn. Your money's as good as anybody else's. As long as you don't come right out and ask me to do anything illegal or immoral, you know, something that's going to hurt people or whatever, I'm more than happy to help you."

Another customer had come into Spy Guys and was staring at the stun guns. Joseph watched him for a moment.

"People need to understand that there is a downside to everything," he says. "It's all about being an intelligent consumer. They need to know what that downside can be and how something they may have thought was a perfect solution can become a new problem—how it can turn around and bite them. If you decide you want to be a snake charmer, it's your business. I'll sell you the basket. I'll sell you the snake. But I'm also here to tell you that the snake-charmer business is dangerous. Snakes can be poisonous, you know?"

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