News Feature | August 21, 2014

When Peeping Toms Go High-Tech, Could VARs Be Held Liable?

Christine Kern

By Christine Kern, contributing writer

Access Control And Video Surveillance News From December 2014

As legislation catches up with surveillance technology, could IT solutions providers be required to run background checks?

The burgeoning technologies of recent years have made our lives easier on many fronts. They have also made it even easier than ever to become a Peeping Tom.

As the size of video and audio equipment has shrunk and their costs have been reduced substantially, it means that virtually anyone has access to surveillance tools, and vendors are not required to conduct background checks on their customers.

Yet even as this hidden technology has advanced, laws regulating its use have lagged behind, according to experts and law enforcement, and while the current surveillance technology is discreet, the existing legislation basically deals with peeking through windows. Laws exist across the nation, though the official name varies state by state — South Carolina calls unlawful surveillance “eavesdropping,” Oregon “invasion of personal privacy,” Texas “improper photography” — and the offense remains the same: recording a subject with audio, visual, or both, without the subject’s permission.

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.”

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

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

In another case Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore recently 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.

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.

Ultimately, as surveillance laws begin to catch up to the latest technological advances in terms of prosecution, it raises the issue of liability. If a client misuses their technology to commit a crime, can the VAR be held liable for that crime? Will vendors be required to conduct background checks for surveillance equipment, just as they must now do for gun purchases? The technological advances bring with them some ethical and legal quandaries that must be addressed as the legislation catches up to the capabilities.