Wireless video images prone to interception

Popular camera plugged on Internet often used to monitor homes, babies

April 14, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Thousands of people who have installed a popular wireless video camera, intending to increase the security of their homes and offices, have instead unknowingly opened a window on their activities to anyone equipped with a cheap receiver.

The wireless video camera, which is heavily advertised on the Internet, sends its signal to a nearby base station, allowing its images to be viewed on a computer or a television. But its signal can be intercepted from more than a quarter-mile away by off-the-shelf electronic equipment that costs less than $250.

A recent drive around the New Jersey suburbs with two security experts underscored the ease with which a digital eavesdropper can peek into homes where cameras are used as baby monitors and as inexpensive security devices.

Such digital peeping is apparently legal, said Clifford S. Fishman, a law professor at the Catholic University of America and the author of a leading work on surveillance law, Wiretapping and Eavesdropping.

When told of the novel form of high-technology prying, Fishman said, "That is astonishing and appalling." But he said wiretap laws are generally applied to the interception of sound, not video. Legal prohibitions on telephone eavesdropping, he said, were passed at the urging of the telecommunications industry, which wanted to ensure that consumers would feel safe using its products. "There's no corresponding lobby out there protecting people from digital surveillance," he said.

Some states have passed laws that prohibit putting cameras in places like dressing rooms, but legislatures have not generally considered the legality of intercepting those signals. Neither have they considered that the signals would be intercepted from cameras that people planted themselves.

Ads for the "Amazing X10 Camera" have been popping up all over the Internet for months. The ads for the device, the XCam2, carry a taste of cheesecake - usually a photo of a glamorous-looking woman in a swimming pool or on the edge of a couch. But in fact, many people have bought the cameras for far more pedestrian purposes.

"Frankly, a lot of it is kind of dull," and most of the women being surreptitiously observed are probably nannies, said Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. He calls the X10 ads "one of the weird artifacts of the Internet age."

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