To be a good spy, you need smarts, stealth—and plenty of cool spy gear. For years, secret agents have used sneaky gadgets to eavesdrop, communicate, and collect information while remaining under the radar. Get the hidden scoop on five undercover tools created to help turn “mission impossible” into “mission accomplished.”
Circa 1960 to Today
A savvy spy's hidden camera of choice for half a century, the Minox could snap 50 pictures on a single roll, and its special lens captured the tiniest details, such as the fine print in classified documents. It was a favorite of John Walker to document America's military secrets. The camera is still made today, although it doesn't see nearly as much espionage action as in the days of the Cold War.
The U.S. ambassador to Russia was delighted when Soviet schoolchildren gave him this hand-carved wooden replica of the Great Seal of the United States in 1946. Told it represented friendship between the two nations, he displayed it proudly in his Moscow study for years. But less than a decade later, technicians discovered that the seal came with a bonus gift: a small wireless listening device—called a bug in spy speak. The microphone was impossible to detect when activated by a beam generated from a van parked nearby. It didn't require wires or even batteries—just air to fill the surrounding cavities, supplied by a tiny hole in the eagle's beak. The seal was code-named "The Thing" because no one knew what to call it.
When agents and soldiers behind enemy lines needed to hide homing beacons to direct aerial reconnaissance, the Central Intelligence Agency came up with this disgusting disguise. Radio transmitters and "dead-drop" canisters (used to pass secret messages) were camouflaged as convincing chunks of poop, something no enemies would investigate or touch.
This umbrella fired a BB-size pellet coated in a deadly poison, which only needed to break the skin to kill. A Bulgarian agent used such an umbrella to assassinate enemy-of-the-state Georgi Markov, who recalled being shot by such a device before falling ill and dying the next day.
You've heard of carrier pigeons? How about pigeon spies! Before reconnaissance planes and surveillance satellites, intelligence offices outfitted pigeons with tiny cameras and released them over military sites. As the birds flew, the cameras continuously clicked away, snapping pictures that were developed and scrutinized for intel when the pigeons reached their destination.