The heyday of China's legendary electronics market in Huaqiangbei may be long gone, but at least one type of gear is still thriving there: Spy cameras.

Sales of spy cameras are rampant at Shenzhen’s gadget paradise, Huaqiangbei, according to a report by state broadcaster CCTV. The report, secretly filmed (ironically) by CCTV reporters, found vendors selling secret cameras disguised as pens, lighters and alarm clocks, among a number of other things. This is in spite of the fact that it's illegal in China to sell “espionage equipment” that can be used for secretly monitoring and photographing people.

In one case, the CCTV reporter bought a fake power socket with a camera hidden in one of the holes and double-sided tape on the back to allow for mounting on a wall. It included an SD card socket and a charging port at the bottom.

Would you think to look twice at the power sockets in your hotel room? (Picture: CCTV)

In another example from the report, one shop demonstrated a different power socket that hides the camera in a small hole in the bottom-right corner. The video can also be watched in real time from a smartphone app.

In recent months, a series of events that show just how easy it is to secretly film people in hotels has unnerved people in China. The apparent prevalence of the practice has raised concerns about people’s privacy and safety.

In May, an Airbnb guest who happens to be a security expert found a camera hidden in an extra hole in a Wi-Fi router. In June, a hidden camera in a Uniqlo fitting room was discovered in Shenzhen.

In another case, a couple found a hidden camera in the TV in their hotel room in the city of Zhengzhou. Police later determined one person had installed hidden cameras in at least five rooms. Then they detained a manager at the hotel when he claimed more than 80% of the hotels in the city have hidden cameras.

Secret cameras are certainly not hard to find in Huaqiangbei. I myself found one last March while looking for the weirdest gadgets for sale at the popular tech market. 

In the midst of weird devices like a bluetooth speaker hat and a gun-shaped AR game console, I came across a spy camera that doubles as a thumb drive. The camera was hidden in the bottom of the drive, and the video could be found on the internal storage when plugged into a computer. Similar to devices in the CCTV report, the package didn’t display any information about the manufacturer.

A camera disguised as a thumb drive, bought from Huaqiangbei. (Picture: Abacus)

Even while walking around outside, I was approached by vendors holding signs advertising spy gear for sale, including spy cameras, GPS trackers and devices that help people cheat at poker and mahjong.

The reporter came across at least half a dozen sellers holding signs advertising spy equipment for sale. (Picture: CCTV)

The CCTV report showed similar vendors out on the street, operating discreetly. They don’t carry around any of the gear with them, but if you show interest, you might be taken to a nearby restaurant or coffee shop so they can introduce you to the products.

Not even sellers of illegal spy equipment can avoid ecommerce, though. Spy camera sellers can also be found on Taobao and Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, CCTV reported.

(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba, owner of Taobao.)