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By Zhao Ruinan | China Daily | Updated: 2019-08-28 07:43

Devices in hotels, retail changing rooms collect footage sold online

Legal experts and privacy advocates are calling for a crackdown on offenses involving high-tech digital devices amid increasing reports of people being filmed secretly in places such as public restrooms and changing rooms in department stores.

In Jining, Shandong province, more than 100,000 recordings were made of guests staying in hotel rooms, where 300 minicams were installed inside lamps, television sets, air conditioners and electrical sockets.

In March, the Ministry of Public Security disclosed the case, announcing the arrest of 29 people for illegally filming and livestreaming unsuspecting hotel guests.

The recordings were posted online. Voyeurs who bought a login ID, costing 100 to 300 yuan ($14 to $42), could access an app connected to the spy cameras and surreptitiously view activity in the rooms.

Some of the perpetrators also downloaded the footage, saved it in cloud files and then sold it online.

On June 15, a woman in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, noticed a button-shaped camera in the fitting room of a Uniqlo store, describing it as "a black dot wrapped in gum".

On the same day, a couple who checked into the Yutai Hotel in Zhengzhou, Henan province, found a pinhole camera hidden in a socket under the TV. Police checked other rooms at the hotel and discovered another spy camera, but the manager denied responsibility.

No official data has been released about the number of people who have been secretly filmed or on how many video clips or images have been posted online.

According to Nanfang Metropolis Daily in Guangdong, from to 2016 to last year, there were reports of hidden cameras being found in at least 35 hotels in 24 cities.

Zhang Jie, a lawyer from the PW & Partners Law Firm in Guangdong, said: "Technological development has enabled images to be shot, distributed and reproduced very easily. The easy availability of hidden-camera technology and lenient punishment for these crimes are the two main reasons that invasion of privacy is increasing. Authorities need to pay more attention to this."

On Aug 8 in Fuzhou, capital of Fujian province, a woman suddenly heard a fizzing sound coming from the TV in the apartment she and her husband had rented for nearly six months.

"It didn't make any sense to me because we had never turned the TV on.... We never watch it," the woman said in media reports. "I checked and found a tiny hole in the side panel."

She said she felt disgusted after she took the TV apart and found a spy camera connected to a circuit board and a 32-gigabyte memory card. The couple had been living under the watchful eye of the hidden camera, which was set to record activity in the room from 9 pm until the following morning.

They immediately called the police. A week later, a statement issued by local police said they had arrested a suspect - the apartment's former tenant. He was given 10 days' detention.

The same punishment was given to an internet technology worker who had installed the button-sized camera in the Uniqlo fitting room in Shenzhen in June.

According to legal experts, legislation on the invasion of privacy does not go far enough.

In China, nonconsensual voyeurism is not a criminal offense. Under the Administrative Punishments Law, anyone who secretly photographs or records others faces a maximum punishment of just 10 days in administrative detention and a fine of up to 500 yuan.

"In cases of such voyeurism, no criminal offense has been committed," Zhang said. "Only if the footage is distributed or sold can a case be considered under the crime of disseminating obscene material (for profit).

"However, such wrongdoing invades victims' privacy and can ruin a life in a flash. The current legislation is far from being tough enough to deter voyeurism. Once these video clips are leaked online, the harm it does to victims cannot be over-exaggerated."

Lawsuits option

Wang Deshan, an associate professor of law at Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing, suggested that illegal filming could be included in the Criminal Law.

"To address the problem, it is reasonable to include the offense in the Criminal Law. However, the Criminal Law is designed to punish those who cause severe harm to society as a whole, so legislators also have to be very careful in determining if the hidden cameras are installed in private places, how many victims are involved and if the perpetrator has violated the law before. All these must be considered," Wang said.

According to Zhang, victims of illegal photography can file civil lawsuits against perpetrators, but those who advocate restricting access to hidden cameras are likely to be disappointed.

Buying spy cameras online is easy, despite the fact that it is illegal in China to produce and sell "espionage equipment" that can be used to secretly monitor and photograph people.

A search on Taobao and many other online stores for "micro-camera shooting" produces multiple hits. Sales of the small, square, black cameras have also been booming at many bricks-and-mortar stores, including those in Huaqiangbei, an area in Shenzhen known for selling electrical goods, according to a report on July 19 by State broadcaster China Central Television. The report documented vendors selling secret cameras disguised as pens, lighters, clothes hangers and water bottles.

Most of them cost less than 300 yuan.

"It is illegal to produce and sell pinhole cameras without permission from the relevant State departments in China," Wang said, referring to a 2015 regulation banning the production, sale and use of "espionage equipment", including spy cameras, without government permission.

In January, the Ministry of Commerce introduced an administrative regulation on e-commerce, prohibiting the sale of such equipment online.

Under the regulation, once an e-commerce platform discovers illegal sales of spy cameras, it is responsible for taking necessary measures and reporting such activity to the authorities.

Wang said the evolution of digital technology has prompted massive demand for hidden cameras. More important, the huge profits that can be made can encourage some retailers to break the law.

"But in practice, few perpetrators are prosecuted for the illegal production and sale of secret cameras. What is plain to see is the difficulty of detecting such secretive gadgets, but there is also lax law enforcement."

Difficulties such as these have left many people frustrated - especially over the lack of privacy for women, the most frequent targets of spy cameras.

From 2015 to last year, more than 100 women were secretly filmed by "Mr Hang", a prominent name online. He sold the videos to a pornographic website for 200 yuan each, earning a total of 600,000 yuan.

He was arrested in January last year and sentenced to 11 years in prison with a 400,000 yuan fine for producing and selling intimate videos online.

The difference in this case was that "Mr Hang" appeared in many of the videos.

His job required him to travel widely, and he took young women he ran into at airports or high-class restaurants to his hotel room, where he had installed hidden cameras facing the bed.

Until they were recognized, the women were unaware that they were being filmed.

"A lot of the victims found out through others who had seen the footage," said Kong Weiwei, founder of the Xiaohongmao Charity.

The nonprofit organization is dedicated to detecting and uncovering "bad pick-up artist groups", a label commonly given in China to those helping men find women for anything from casual to long-term relationships.

According to Legal Daily, such groups offer instructions in cajoling, duping and even threatening women with intimate videos to procure sex and/or payoffs.

Kong's charity program, established in 2017, has helped more than 350 women. Many of the victims approached her and told how they had been tricked.

Many of them feel so "daunted and frightened" that they cannot continue their normal social activities, Kong said. "In extreme cases, the women even commit suicide."

"More than 90 percent of women targeted by these men... are secretly filmed," the 29-year-old said, adding, "But few of them go to the police, because they feel ashamed of being exposed online." Kong said she has long encouraged women to take legal action to protect their rights.

"Some of them tend to blame themselves for having no sense of self-protection, rather than resorting to the law. I think women should stand up (for themselves). The more cases that are reported to the police, the more this will grab the attention of legal departments. This in turn will promote social governance, which was also one of the reasons I founded Xiaohongmao."

Protests in Seoul

Similar cases have been reported globally, with spy cameras being particularly prevalent in South Korea.

More than 6,000 such cases were reported in the country in 2017, and about 6,800 last year, up from 2,400 in 2012. More than 5,400 people were arrested for crimes related to spy cameras in 2017, but fewer than 2 percent were imprisoned.

Anger at the widespread use of hidden cameras prompted a series of protests last year in Seoul, the capital, when more than 50,000 women took to the streets to demand tougher sentencing for voyeurs.

Two months later, 8,000 workers were assigned to inspect the city's 20,554 public restrooms, a move critics said would not solve the root cause of the problem.

Seoul is also battling illegal filming in the accommodations sector, with a special task force consisting of government officials, police and the public being formed in June to inspect hotel rooms.

But while authorities are supposed to impose stricter penalties on voyeurism, the hotels and clothing shops cannot ignore their responsibilities.

Qiu Baochang, director of the Beijing Lawyers Association's Consumer Rights Protection Committee, said, "Business operators have an obligation to protect customers' privacy."

Under the law in China that protects consumer rights and interests, business operators must guarantee that the goods and services they supply meet personal or property safety requirements.

Wang, the law professor, said: "When a customer pays for a hotel room, he or she forms a contractual relationship with the operator. Contract law also has regulations stating that the room provided should be suitable for living, which obviously does not include the installation of hidden cameras. Consumers can seek compensation from hotel operators, even if they were not the ones who set up the hidden cameras."

Bai Xiaoli, a lawyer at the Anli Partners law firm in Beijing, suggested the authorities could also send special teams to carry out regular inspections of hotels and shopping malls, as South Korea has done.

The former judge said authorities should provide legal instructions for victims to safeguard their rights. For example, the Consumers Association could set up a "green channel" for complaints.

Zhang, the lawyer, said the crux of this growing problem may be due to a longstanding social tradition in China.

"People in our country do not value their privacy very much. It is no big deal for some people if their ID number or photo are obtained and spread illegally online. This results in insufficient legal control over privacy infringements such as secret filming," Zhang said.

"If we want to root this out, we should also focus on how to enhance people's awareness of safeguarding their privacy. When the whole of society, including the government, pays more attention to privacy, then infringements such as secret filming may decline."

The government is stepping up efforts to crack down on voyeurism.

Late last month, the market regulation administration in Shenzhen raided a security products manufacturer, seizing 552 nonstandard spy cameras valued at about 60,000 yuan.

Some netizens on Sina Weibo are calling for people to be more careful about privacy infringement. They post short videos online, teaching people how to use special devices to detect hidden cameras.

One of the posts stated, "May we be the protagonists of our lives, not the ones under the lenses of others."

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