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Tiny Cameras, Big Crimes: Peeping Toms Go High-Tech

As technology advances and the cost of hidden surveillance equipment declines, spying is easier than ever.

Technology has made it easier than ever to be a Peeping Tom.

Hidden video cameras and audio recorders have become smaller and less expensive. Accessibility is easier than ever, and vendors are not required to conduct background checks on their customers.

But while hidden technology has advanced, laws regulating its use have lagged, experts and law enforcement say. We’re living in an era of discreet surveillance governed by laws that mostly cover peeking through windows.

The official name varies state by state -– South Carolina calls unlawful surveillance “eavesdropping,” Oregon “invasion of personal privacy,” Texas “improper photography” -– though the offense remains the same: recording a subject with audio, visual, or both, without the subject’s permission.

Experts say surveillance technology is more accessible to the general public than it was ten years ago. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement reports that the number of arrests for video voyeurism has more than doubled in recent years, with 24 arrests in 2010 and 53 arrests in 2013.

Authorities say they are frustrated with video and audio laws, which haven’t kept up with the technology when charging people with being e-peepers. Lieutenant Will Benny of the Dothan County Police Department in Alabama cited a case earlier this month involving a man who planted a hidden camera in a young woman’s bedroom. There was video, but no audio. Benny said, “If he had installed audio, it would have been a felony.”

“Technology has surpassed the scope of the law.”

The offender instead was charged with two Class A misdemeanor counts of aggravated criminal surveillance.

“Technology has surpassed the scope of the law,” he said.

Last month, Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore agreed to pay a $190 million settlement to victims of a doctor who recorded over 1,200 videos and 140 images of gynecological exams with a concealed camera inside a pen he wore around his neck.

Law enforcement officials say these kind of tiny cameras are becoming more common. Captain Bob Lynn of the Dubuque County Sheriff’s Department’s Investigative Unit recalled one device planted in a Cascade, Iowa school baseball field’s portable restroom by an Iowa man. The camera was smaller than a pack of gum.

The man was charged with two misdemeanor counts of trespassing, even though middle school students were the victims. Lynn said that under the law it didn't rise to the level of an invasion of privacy, which would have carried a stiffer sentence.

Smartphones as e-peeping tools

“Also, so many of our devices now have the ability to be used as a hidden camera,” said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Benjamin Kinsey. Smartphones, iPods, tablets, and digital cameras have become smaller and more advanced.

Nicole Weaver was shopping with her two young sons in a Boise, Idaho, Wal-Mart in 2010 when another shopper alerted her of a man she saw recording Weaver with his cell phone.

“She came up to me in the aisle saying, ‘He’s taking your photo! He’s taking pictures!’ That’s when I really noticed he was standing literally right next to me, kneeling down, I guess pretending to look at medicine, his camera looking up my skirt,” said Weaver, 41.

Together, the two women restrained the man, reached for his cell phone, and turned it over to a Wal-Mart security guard. He was later arrested and charged with video voyeurism; a felony in Idaho.

Weaver said she is more aware of her surroundings now “mostly with my kids. If anybody looks twice at them, I’m on it.”

“Nobody is beyond questioning,” she said.

Background checks not required

Purchasing video and audio recorders is legal, and surveillance equipment vendors are not required to conduct background checks on customers.

“We provide the service of background checking, but I don’t background check customers,” said Bob Leonard, the owner of Spy Store, a security equipment manufacturer and distributor in downtown New York City. Leonard said in the last two to three years, he has seen an increase in the number of men who purchase hidden cameras, mostly to check if their wives are cheating.

It even happens in the armed forces. In March, a West Point Military Academy sergeant received a 33-month sentence for secretly videotaping female cadets in school showers and bathrooms.

“It’s the sort of thing that severely undermines the trust of people,” said Kevin Govern, professor of law at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who has taught law and military ethics at the Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. Govern believes people, whether “average citizens” or “informed leaders” must have a better understanding of the risk that hidden technology poses.

“You can basically take a box of staples and put a pin-size camera inside and activate it from your home several miles away,” said Sergeant Maurice Eggleston of Dothan County police. “It can happen anywhere.”