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.”
From concealed cameras to flies on the wall, here are the 16 most fascinating gadgets from the collection.
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 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.
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 aeroplanes, 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 220 metres 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, 8km/h 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.
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.
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.
By tilting the mirror at just the right angle, this makeup compact reveals a secret code.
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 aluminium case, magnifying eyepiece, and a dial that glows in the dark.
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.
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.
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.
CIA operatives starting in the 1930s had clever ways of hiding miniature compasses to navigate escape routes -- like in these cufflinks.
During WWII, the German military used machines that encrypted secret messages, called Enigmas. It would make unsolveable codes, which looked like a series of numbers and letters.
Polish Intelligence later procured an Enigma codebook and a German Enigma machine, which could be used together to crack codes (some with 150 quintillion possible solutions). The country later gave the machine and book to the CIA so that it could decipher Germany's hidden messages.
In the late '40s, the CIA invented this camera that could secretly transfer documents and photos.
The device could reduce whole pages onto microscopic film pieces, called microdots. These photos were then stored in other discreet things, such as rings, hollow coins, and mail. The microdots were often embedded into the sentence periods in letters, which the recipients would read with a microscope.
During the Vietnam War in the 1960s, the CIA invented this unusual device to count people and supplies moving down the Ho Chi Minh Trail from North to South Vietnam.
The CIA recruited Laotian trail watchers to keep track, but many of them couldn't read, write, or speak English.
Different symbols on the device represented different things, like troops, trucks, motorcycles, carts, bikes, tanks, donkeys, and even elephants. A knob that could be set to a number was placed alongside each pictogram for counting purposes.
The steel muffs in this communication headset are bulletproof -- and they have even saved a few lives.
In 2009, a CIA officer was chasing a high-ranking enemy in Afghanistan. Cornered in a valley, the enemy shot at him with a rifle. Two bullets grazed the officer's headset -- one on each side -- inches from his face, but he survived thanks to the muffs.
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