January 13, 2012 10:13 pm

First Person: Mitchell Wagenberg

A covert video surveillance specialist has helped to ensnare criminals and misbehaving politicians

I specialise in designing and installing covert video surveillance for news outlets and law enforcement agencies. I am the hidden camera guy. I’ve helped to snare misbehaving politicians and to indict a lot of criminals – that’s why I don’t want my picture out there.

In 1997 I bagged Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader, on a junket in the US Trust Territory of the northern Mariana Islands, promising to derail legislation that threatened sweatshops that flourished there. That was for the ABC news programme 20/20. I’ve been involved in dozens of investigations exposing sex trafficking. In 2004, I went undercover for NBC to document child sex slavery in Cambodia. Once, I built a motorcycle jacket-cam when a law enforcement guy had to go undercover into a biker clubhouse. He was an ex-member and knew he wasn’t going to get patted down, so I put six cameras in the jacket. Talk about Imax – he got every angle.

I grew up in Queens, New York, where I learnt basic electronics from a buddy. In my twenties I worked for a contractor installing audio-visual systems at military facilities and I ended up going overseas with the US Information Agency. Being in jobs like those, you meet a lot of people. I came back and started doing undercover stuff as a cameraman. These days though, I mostly just do design and installation. You put together what you learn. My dad owned a knitting mill when I was growing up and he knows everything there is to know about fabric. Now, when I need to put a camera in a shirt, I know how to do it so it is perfect – seamless with no bumps.

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Since the news networks got decimated I’ve started doing a lot of reality TV – that’s just the nature of the beast right now. I do serious stuff and not-so-serious stuff, but I do draw a line. These Bridezillas or Momzillas or thiszilla or thatzilla. I won’t go there – I’m not a mercenary. And I don’t work corporate. I’m not putting cameras in locker rooms so they can see who is smoking pot at lunchtime.

The most reprehensible things I’ve been asked to do were both for one particular TV network. In one of them, a producer heard that kids were shooting Hispanics on the Texas-Mexico border and I was hired to install some hidden cameras. When I got there, it turned out the story wasn’t true. But the producer tells these kids, “What do you mean you don’t do it? I flew all the way from New York. I’ll buy you the ammo!” I turned round and went straight home.

Three months later the same network called to say that it knew where a woman in a high-profile case who had been raped was receiving care. They wanted to get a hidden camera into the clinic. I said, “Oh really? Not with me you won’t.” The abuse of hidden cameras is more prevalent than ever. It goes on everywhere. It is like the hacking business with Murdoch. There is a lot less oversight than there used to be. I’m always professional though – different situations call for different cameras. Is there low light? How close are you to the target? Do you need a glasses-cam, a hat-cam, or something below the neck like a pen-cam, button-cam or shirt-cam? I’m a big fan of buttons. I’m doing them with infrared light now. I’ve even made a lip salve-cam, and I’m working on something the size of a thumbnail. I’m sure some nut will get the first camera implant. My wife works with me and has started a line of covert womenswear – purse-cams are huge.

You don’t have to get these tools from me. It just so happens I’m building stuff ahead of the curve. Anyone can put a camera in a room. But can they make it unobtrusive? Right now, I’m building a candy bar-cam. The chocolate chip is the lens and you can eat a third of the bar. On the fourth bite you’d get electrocuted, but I’m working on that.

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