CIA operatives may not use jetpacks or laser-powered watches, but they do have a few tricks up their sleeves.
At the CIA Museum in Washington, DC, you can get a glimpse of the gadgets used in past spy missions.
The agency has declassified 600 out of some 20,000 objects used by CIA operatives throughout history, museum director Toni Hiley tells Tech Insider. Current operatives are constantly looking to old gadgets to build new ones.
“Revisiting technology is something we always do in the world of espionage,” Hiley says. “There’s no such thing as technology that’s too old for operations.”
A pipe that conceals a radio.
This men’s pipe from the 1960s hides a radio receiver. Sound travels from the pipe through the jaw bone to the ear canal.
A camera that fits in a cigarette pack.
A miniature 35-mm Tessina film camera fits inside this pack of Parliaments. Hiley says the CIA chose a Tessina because it was one of the smallest and quietest cameras in the 1960s.
A carrier pigeon.
During WWII, operatives would strap these lightweight cameras to pigeons. As the bird flew over a target, the camera took hundreds of photos. These images were more detailed than those from airplanes, because pigeons can fly hundreds of feet lower.
Unfortunately, the pigeon photos are still classified.
A microphone the size of a bead hides in the head of this fake dragonfly.
Using a mini engine, it can fly 650 feet for 60 seconds via remote control. The dragonfly’s wide wingspan allowed it to take flight easily, but the CIA couldn’t control it even in light, 5-mph crosswinds.
Although the CIA never deployed it, Hiley says it represents the first “insect” used for surveillance in the 1970s.
“Only the CIA would think to design a bug to hide a bug in,” she says.
A ‘dead drop’ spike.
Since communication between agents is always risky, the CIA invented this hollow container to hold film and documents in the 1960s. Operatives pushed the spike into the ground at a prearranged location, and another agent picked it up later, eliminating the need for direct contact.
An intruder detection device.
Designed to blend in with soil, this Cold War-era device detects enemies from up to 1,000 feet away. Once it senses a vibration, a built-in antenna transmits a warning to the CIA via radio signals.
A coded compact.
By tilting the mirror at just the right angle, this makeup compact reveals a secret code.
A US Army lensatic compass.
Unlike normal compasses, this olive “lensatic” compass contains a magnifying lens on the back. Accurate up to the degree, the US Army has used it since the 1950s. It has an aluminum case, magnifying eyepiece, and a dial that glows in the dark.
‘Charlie,’ the robot fish.
In the 1990s, the CIA developed “Charlie” to collect underwater signals from enemy crafts. Controlled by a radio remote, the catfish contains a microphone in the body and a propulsion system in the tail.
A hand-crank drill.
Using this toolkit, agents drilled holes in brick walls to hide microphone surveillance in the late 1950s. To use it, they held the base of the device against their stomachs while manually cranking the drill.
A hollow ‘silver dollar.’
It may look like a normal silver dollar, but this tiny container can hold messages or film. Since it looks like pocket change, agents could pass it back and forth without attracting attention.