State privacy law riddled with holes

Voyeurism: As technology makes it easier to spy on workers and kin, drawing the legal line gets more complex.

April 24, 2001|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

The call came when the 18-year-old was at work at an Elkridge pizza shop: Her 22-year-old housemate, a flight attendant, had discovered a secret video recording setup that played images of the younger woman's bathroom in the house where they rented rooms.

Police, armed with search warrants, later found four tiny cameras hidden behind paneling and in towel racks in the women's bedrooms and bathrooms.

Investigators also found tapes that showed both women taking showers, going to the bathroom and dressing, according to court documents.

The 18-year-old, who agreed to be interviewed on condition that she not be named, grabbed her hamster, medicine to treat a sinus infection and some clothes and moved back into her parents' Hampden home that night.

"I know I lost trust in people," the teen-ager said, sitting in her lawyer's office last week. "It's a big trust thing."

Howard County police charged her landlord, Edward George Campion III, under a 1999 Maryland law that makes it illegal to be a video peeping tom. But the law has so many exemptions there's a good chance the prosecution will be unsuccessful, legal experts say.

That possibility reflects a sobering truth. We are gaining increasing technological ability to spy on our families, friends and neighbors with limited legal consequences.

A flood of public and private watching is rising everywhere, fed by falling costs and improving efficiency of monitoring devices.

Governments place cameras on street corners to deter crime and at traffic signals to catch red-light runners. Businesses monitor their employees. And private folks, with a supply of equipment and software just a mouse click away, are recording everything from nannies to their unfaithful spouses' Internet use.

Privacy experts note that few will quibble with the idea of prosecuting folks who hide cameras just to get their jollies. But they say it's more difficult to determine just how to do that and to protect other, more acceptable kinds of watching, such as checking up on nannies or investigating fraud.

"In a free country, you have a right to look around and see what there is to see," notes Del. Dana Lee Dembrow, the Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored Maryland's video spying legislation. "Its only a question of where we want to draw the line."

Dembrow predicts that we could have law enforcement by video in 20 years - with cameras and monitors replacing police officers.

Consider this:

In Baltimore, 32 cameras monitor activity along several downtown streets, and 16 more are being installed.

In the General Assembly this session, bills that would have allowed cameras to catch speeders and permitted nursing home residents and their families to place cameras in their rooms were introduced but not passed.

At the Super Bowl in January, cameras trained on the four main stadium gates at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., captured images of everyone who walked inside to detect known criminals attending the big game.

And growing numbers of individuals in Maryland and elsewhere are using new software to monitor the Internet communications of other people and concealed cameras to check up on care givers.

The trend is troubling for some.

"One of the surprising lessons of privacy law over the past century is how little it protects," said Jeffrey Rosen, an associate professor at George Washington University Law School whose book, "The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America" was published last year.

There are civil penalties for certain privacy invasions, particularly those that a reasonable person would find offensive, he said.

"The difficulty is that short of the most extreme form of voyeurism, people in a voyeuristic age don't agree on the standards," he said.

Increased government video surveillance is worrisome, said Suzanne Smith, the legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Maryland. There are questions about what happens to the tapes when the original purpose of the taping has passed, she said - who has access to them, when they will be erased, whether they will be used to create databases.

"It really raises the question about what you're doing with the data you collect," she said.

Others point to benefits of video surveillance.

Use of cameras in downtown Baltimore has corresponded with a drop in crime in those areas, said Tom Yeager, a vice president of the Downtown Partnership. The system is also designed to protect privacy as much as possible, he said: Tapes aren't viewed unless a problem is reported, and the cameras can't pan and zoom.

"What the camera sees is what every other citizen walking down the street sees," he said. "There is no privacy issue here."

But modern spying isn't just with cameras.

Vero Beach, Fla.-based SpectorSoft markets a program that takes periodic "snapshots" of the images on a computer screen.

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