High Tech Toms Go Peeping 

Laws struggle to keep up with technology

As consumers simplify their lives with technology, the demand for smaller, less expensive equipment increases. Developments in cellular phone technology over the last several years and its subsequent success in the marketplace indicate that where technology leads, pocketbooks follow. In less than a decade, awkwardly large cell phones became pocket-sized necessities not only with worldwide calling capabilities, but also text messaging, Internet access and, most recently, the ability to take and transmit photographs. But as the legal system struggles to catch up with these popular developments in order to protect privacy rights, some forms of technological victimization may not even be labeled as crimes.

Two years before camera phones became popular in the United States, the Video Voyeurism Prevention Act (S. 1301) was introduced into Congress in 2000. The bill's original language focused mainly on privacy infringements using concealed video cameras. The advent of cell phone camera technology in 2002 and 2003 created new opportunities for privacy invasion and the original Video Voyeurism Prevention Act was reworded and reintroduced to make cell phone camera voyeurism a federal offense.

The bill prohibits taking covert pictures in locker rooms, bedrooms and other places where people have a reasonable expectation of privacy. The bill sailed through the Senate and made it through the House Judiciary Committee in May with little opposition. Though it has not yet been signed into law, there is little doubt that the Video Voyeurism Prevention Act will make it into the law books.

In Idaho, the absence of an effective law against video voyeurism became the center of much debate when it was reported last year that a Twin Falls motel owner installed hidden cameras in many of the motel's rooms. Though he regularly spied on motel guests using hidden cameras and listening devices, Twin Falls authorities were unable to charge the man with a crime.

Slightly more than a year later, video voyeurism has been outlawed thanks to the Idaho Legislature's quick action. After fielding numerous complaints of hidden cameras being used in public places to videotape up women's skirts or over bathroom stalls, in addition to complaints of secret videotaping in such places as hotel rooms or athletic club locker rooms, Idaho lawmakers introduced S1243. In March of this year, Governor Dirk Kempthorne signed the bill into law after it was unanimously passed by both the state House and state Senate. The new law makes video voyeurism a felony crime.

Currently the Ada County Sheriff's Office is investigating several cases involving violations of privacy under the new video voyeurism law. In a case being heard by a grand jury this week, an Idaho man is suspected to have secretly videotaped visitors to his home with a camera installed in a ceiling vent. A second investigation is underway involving a suspected pinhole camera in the changing area of an athletic facility. However, because the suspected voyeurism occurred prior to the enactment of S1243, the suspects can only be charged with misdemeanor trespass of privacy.

Once S1243 went into effect, suspects found guilty not only became convicted felons, but also had to register as sex offenders. Though Idaho's new law promises to be fairly effective in protecting the rights of citizens whose privacy has been violated unknowingly and in a sexual manner, the most disconcerting fact is that many people may never even know they are victims.

An Internet search yields hundreds of thousands of hits when searching for surveillance equipment. A camera can easily be concealed in a clock, radio, TV, VCR, fan, book, stuffed animal, picture frame, light fixture or even a smoke detector. With enough ingenuity a camera can be hidden in just about anything, including shirt buttons, pens, belt buckles and thin-framed glasses, making detection of a voyeur's camera extremely difficult.

According to the Ada County Sheriff's Office, $150 will buy a nearly imperceptible "plug and play" digital video recorder with an excellent picture.

Cameras that record perfect images in the dark or can be concealed in a button may seem like things from a futuristic spy movie, but they are a reality. Under the right circumstances, such technology has been extremely effective in preventing and fighting crime. British authorities, for example, keep a tight reign on security by videotaping public spaces throughout the country. CNN.com reports that an estimated 4.2 million cameras capture the average Briton 300 times everyday as citizens walk the streets, drive, shop and go about daily activities. The United States is not far behind. In Boise, cameras are more prevalent than the average citizen realizes. People are filmed at busy intersections, driving down the Connector, at parking garages, at the mall, at the gym; the list goes on and on.

Detective Mike Kinzel of the Ada County Sheriff's Department Office warns citizens not to expect that they are not on camera because we are often legally videotaped without realizing it. While technology enables law enforcement and security agencies to legally videotape citizens without their knowledge, that same technology enables voyeurs to capture illicit images just as easily.

"I can be sitting across from you at a table and aim a video camera up your skirt and you would never know," said Detective Kinzel. "It's that easy to conceal a camera."

Hidden cameras are not the only problem law enforcement officers combat on the video voyeurism front.

"I've heard there are X-ray cameras that can see through clothing," he said.

While pin hole and X-ray cameras may have people thinking twice about where to undress, another form of video voyeurism is easily accessible in any home with Internet capability. Entering an Internet chat room--even one designated for families--can introduce chatters to local Internet video voyeurs. Several months ago Ada County Sheriffs Department conducted Internet stings by entering chat rooms and posing as teens who were willing to meet with local men. At least one of the men apprehended in the sting used a Web camera to send a sexually explicit video of himself to the undercover investigators.

"There are a lot of latchkey kids. Both mom and dad work and the kids are at home, bored," Detective Kinzel said, explaining that even without typing in sexually-related words, explicit images will pop up without any kind of warning. Often Internet predators will attempt to coerce children and teens to videotape themselves, and if the child does not have access to a Web camera, it's not uncommon that one will arrive in the mail courtesy of the person who wants to watch.

Though such Internet exchanges are a type of video voyeurism, video voyeurism laws do not apply to such cases and violations are generally prosecuted under pornography laws.

Detective Kinzel speculates that video voyeurism has become a problem because the nature of pornography has changed due to advanced technology.

"Video voyeurism is an addictive tool and with porn or sex addicts, it's not a far leap to videotape," he explained.

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