Regulating the Sale and Use of Hidden Cameras

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Regulators should restrict the sale and access of covert cameras but not ban them outright.

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Hidden camera misuse has become an issue in many countries. Given their small size and use of wireless transmitters, hidden cameras—also known as covert or spy cameras­­—­­­­can be embedded within various objects such as clocks, pens, and electrical appliances.

Some commentators recently advocated a ban on the sale of hidden cameras in Singapore. Although an outright ban is not the best solution, the sale and use of covert cameras should be regulated for four main reasons.

First, hidden cameras have been used to commit crimes and can cause harm to society. Hidden cameras reportedly have been installed in hotel rooms, clothing stores’ changing rooms, and lavatories.

The recorded footage of intimacy or nudity has been sold, uploaded, or live-streamed to satisfy unscrupulous demands for voyeurism. These instances have caused various degrees of harm to the persons being unknowingly filmed.

Furthermore, covert cameras have been reportedly used by paparazzi, sexual predators, and corporate spies. Apart from the flagrant intrusion of privacy, such usage may facilitate a number of illicit acts, such as blackmailing, harassment, and theft of information.

It is not surprising that some commentators have called for the prohibition of hidden cameras. A complete ban, however, is not without shortcomings. Supporters of a ban fail to recognize that there are some justifiable uses of covert cameras by certain groups of persons, such as investigative journalists. Some commentators found it “ironic” that undercover journalists have used covert cameras to report on the illegal sale of such cameras.

Second, existing legal safeguards do not address hidden cameras sufficiently. Different jurisdictions use different laws to punish misuse and do so through a wide range of offenses, such as voyeurism, cybercrime, blackmail, dissemination of pornography, invasion of privacy, and trespass of private properties.

Enforcement of these offenses, however, is arguably inadequate. It is hard to detect the hidden cameras in the first place, so the victims and authorities may not even know when a crime occurs. In addition, police may experience difficulties in locating suspects because the use of wireless transmission limits tracing and apprehension by the police.

Governments must preempt hidden camera misuse by limiting the public’s access. Currently, lawmakers use two major regulatory approaches to address covert cameras: criminalizing misuse and banning the sale of covert cameras. China adopts the latter approach. Article 283 of the Criminal Law of the People’s Republic of China, makes it an offense to “produce and sell monitoring, photographing or other special espionage equipment.” But both approaches have deficiencies.

Third, there is inadequate justification for the general public to use covert cameras. Without a doubt, covert cameras can be used for many beneficial purposes. Most notably, they help expose crime in private investigations. Other purposes may include monitoring employees, using a “nanny cam” to monitor individuals providing childcare, and recording for lawful entertainment, such as prank shows. Despite a variety of benign uses, such uses do not sufficiently justify unfettered public access to covert cameras.

In a number of jurisdictions, courts often do not admit secretly recorded footage into evidence—although some exceptions apply. And the unrestricted supply of covert cameras may indirectly encourage citizens or journalists to undergo investigation. This practice is sometimes questionable because the proper cause of action should be informing the police or relevant authorities for them to carry out the investigation instead.

Moreover, the journalistic reporting or citizens’ own uploading of inadmissible footage may lead to public shaming, or “trial by media.” The latter may affect the fairness of court proceedings.

As Gavin Phillipson, a professor at the University of Bristol Law School, has written, “the public will not see an appearance of fairness when the defendant’s guilt, including details of inadmissible evidence, is daily proclaimed in the media.”

In the employment context, monitoring employees can be equally achieved by using overt cameras. Due to privacy considerations, employers are often legally obligated to inform employees and obtain their prior consent for being surveilled.

Allowing the entertainment industry to use covert cameras for fun shows does not mean the general public should be allowed to do the same. For example, prop money used in movies is strictly governed by laws in some countries to prevent any unrelated usage.

Finally, the beneficial functions of covert cameras can be kept even if their sale is restricted to certain persons. The best approach would be to restrict the sale of covert cameras only to certain groups of professions, such as journalists. Although such professional use of secret cameras might have undesirable consequences, it is generally more beneficial than harmful.

For example, there may be circumstances when the authorities or police refuse to investigate, for reasons such as politics or corruption. For journalists who have public functions to fulfill—especially in democratic jurisdictions that value freedom of information and thought—the public’s right to information provides ample justification for the press to make good use of covert cameras.

Access to covert cameras could also be granted to other select sectors. For example, in recognition of the freedom for artistic expression and creativity, it may be justifiable to allow access to certain persons or companies in the entertainment industry.

Lawmakers can require sellers of covert cameras to be licensed or registered with relevant authorities. Accordingly, only persons with proper credentials would be allowed to purchase covert cameras. By analogy, this scheme could work like selling prescription drugs, where the seller must be a registered pharmacist and the buyer needs a valid prescription.

The thrust of the concern is that covert cameras are arguably comparable to restricted drugs and guns. They are not necessities and can easily be used for unlawful purposes. Given that the disadvantages of covert cameras “far outweigh the advantages,” the more effective approach would be to restrict their sale and access.

The justifications for allowing unrestricted public access are insufficient. Compared to a complete ban, which has been advocated in Singapore and adopted in China, the suggested approach ensures covert cameras can still be used for constructive aims while also preventing misuse.

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Martin Kwan is a legal researcher.

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Ken Fu is a legal researcher.