April 18, 2024

Tech Policy in the SkyMall Catalog

These days tech policy issues seem to pop up everywhere. During a recent flight delay, I was flipping through the SkyMall Catalog (“Holiday 2009” edition), and found tech policy even there.

There were lots of ads for surveillance and recording devices, some of them clearly useful for illegal purposes: the New Agent Cam HD Color Video Spy Camera (p. 14), the Original Agent Cam Color Video Spy Camera (p. 14), the Video Recording Sunglasses (p. 23), the Wireless Remote Controlled Pan and Tilt Surveillance Camera (p. 23), the Spy Pen (with hidden audio and video recorders, p. 42), the Orbitor Electronic Listening Device, and the GPS Tracking Key (p. 224)

There were also plenty of ads for media-copying technologies, of the sort that various copyright owners might find objectionable: the LP and Cassette to CD Recorder (p. 16), the Slide and Negative to Digital Picture Converter (p. 17), the Digital Photo to DVD Converter (p. 20), the Easy Ipod Media Sharer (p. 27), the One Step DVD/CD Duplicator (p. 31), the Photograph to Digital Picture Converter (p. 40), and the Crosley Encoding Turntable (converts LP records to MP3s, p. 179).

Are these things illegal? Probably not, I guess, but there are surely people out there who would want to make them illegal. And some of them are pretty good ways to get a tech policy debate started.

I’m not about to start reading the SkyMall catalog for fun. But it’s interesting to know that it offers more than just Slankets and yeti statues.


  1. My favorite pretty-obscure section of the Federal Wiretap Act is section 2512, which makes it a five year federal felony to:

    “place[] in any newspaper, magazine, handbill, or other publication or disseminate[] by electronic means any advertisement of (i) any electronic, mechanical, or other device knowing or having reason to know that the design of such device renders it primarily useful for the purpose of the surreptitious interception of wire, oral, or electronic communications; or (ii) any other electronic, mechanical, or other device, where such advertisement promotes the use of such device for the purpose of the surreptitious interception of wire, oral, or electronic communications, knowing the content of the advertisement and knowing or having reason to know that such advertisement will be sent through the mail or transported in interstate or foreign commerce,

    SkyMall, call your lawyers! 🙂

    • That kind of gear has been hawked in Sharper Image catalogs and the classified sections of magazines for years. I’ve always wondered what kinds of people actually buy that stuff. James Bond wannabees and the tinfoil hat crowd, perhaps. Merchants of that equipment will often place a disclaimer stating something like: “for novelty use only,” and insist that the gear is not to be used for unlawful purposes. I’m not sure how far a defendant would get playing dumb like that.

      It would be interesting to see if any of these kinds of merchants have been prosecuted under that statute. 🙂 I know it’s been used against people who pirate cable/satellite TV signals.


      • And its use against signal pirates is clearly a misuse, since that law is clearly intended as a privacy safeguard, not a copyright safeguard, and cable and satellite signals’ contents are clearly non-secret, being as they are widely disseminated to the general public and anyone with some money who pays to see those contents.