Privacy-invading camera tech is a problem that authorities will always struggle to combat

Camera Privacy

I have a bit of a confession to make. Not a major one, not one that had any impact on anyone’s lives, but one that I still feel a little conflicted about.

Many years ago, when I was young and curious I bought a covert audio recording device. It was disguised as a bit of office stationery and could make relatively crude sound recordings. It wasn’t particularly expensive and the recordings it made were passable. Not enough to go pirating music concerts but probably better quality than the system Nixon had in the Oval Office.
The thing that surprised me wasn’t necessarily how cheap the technology was, but rather just how easy it could be to record people without them knowing.

It’s not something that occurs to most people on a day-to-day basis, but with the increasing ease of use and availability of small spying devices, it’s a problem that isn’t about to go away on its own, and happens plenty already.

Take Wisconsin, where a wannabe upskirt snapper secreted a camera into his shoe only to have the device explode, injuring his foot and prompting him to turn himself in. Having not actually recorded any images, Police concluded that no crime had taken place and, after some ‘counselling’ he was released, according to Motherboard.

What’s notable isn’t necessarily that the man planned to secretly take pictures up people’s skirts – though that really can’t be glossed over – but that the device he used wasn’t some gaffa-tape and soldered concoction. It was a device he purchased off-the-shelf, made specifically for covert photography, which inevitably raises the prospect of an unknown number of these devices that could already be in use undetected.

Smartphone Privacy - Upskirtting

This is not a new problem

‘Upskirting’ is a well-known phenomenon in many countries, and there are several, including South Korea and Japan, where good practice guidance encourages smartphone makers to ensure that phones make a loud shutter sound when taking pictures, in order to alert people nearby if a photo is being taken. This is by no means new, and has been the case in Japan for a decade already.

More recently authorities have been faced with a different problem: people brazenly installing hidden cameras in public toilets. This issue has grown to the extent where cleaners in the country’s capital, Seoul, have been tasked with performing daily sweeps of toilet facilities to attempt to find secreted recording devices.

The cleaners, or rather their employers, face an uphill struggle. Perpetrators may only leave a device in place for a few hours, removing them before the end of the day and, even if devices are found, the low cost and off-the shelf nature of the devices makes them untraceable and effectively disposable.

This comes alongside technology that makes anonymous distribution of illicit images a mundane activity. Tube sites (not limited to those dedicated to revenge porn) offer a streamlined and relatively anonymous way to share and, in some cases, make money from intimate recordings taken of people unawares.

The surprising thing when looking into this isn’t that it’s happening but that it’s happening so frequently. Secretly recording or photographing people risks becoming ‘mainstream’ in part because there’s no easy way to stop it. Take the findings of a recent poll by which, when asking if respondents had ever recorded a partner without their permission (the site has since issued an apology for the post), found that 1 in 4 men said that they had. One in four! 25%!!

Video Camera - Upskirtting

A hiccup in UK law-making

In June 2018, UK MPs Christopher Chope and Philip Davies drew criticism for their role in blocking new legislation that would have made upskirting a specific criminal offense. But even if the legislation had passed, new laws and specific criminal offences are only useful if police are able and willing to effectively combat these offences.

….And all of this is for crimes that occur on-location and says nothing of the recent advent of “deep fake” pornography. This technique is where users feed photos of a person into an AI algorithm that then substitutes them onto the body of porn performers.

It’s a crime that manages to impact two sets of people at once; most directly there’s the victim (often left feeling degraded or distressed), but it also has potential to impact the original porn performers. In an industry that’s tougher than ever, having your face – your identity – removed from your work certainly isn’t going to help you build followers for your brand and persona.

Each potential avenue for combating surreptitious pornography (“upskirting” is an easier word to use but doesn’t cover the full sweep of practices here) is equally difficult for authorities to approach.

Catching perpetrators in the act is the most basic approach, and the criminals have the apparent technological advantage. Tackling the issue through regulatory frameworks, say, by restricting sales of miniaturised cameras or covert recording devices is a dramatic case of bolting the stable door after the horse is several fields away.

It’s the last potential battleground, the realm of captured and distributed data that would seem to be the next place to focus efforts but here is where the issue is the most nuanced, perhaps. Modern technology has made capturing and distributing illicit recordings trivially easy, in a way that means the effort needed to effectively police it is disproportionate.

The end result is not a particularly rosy outlook; of covert recordings, and recording devices capable of invading privacy, but that are hard to detect. Regulation is notoriously poor at restricting peoples’ digital activity. Restricting sale of the devices isn’t going to put the genie back in the bottle, and ground-level policing of privacy-invading camera tech is one that’s hugely inefficient, even in countries where proposals for new laws aren’t actively blocked by politicians.

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