Privacy under attack

Ease and availability of hidden cameras puts privacy in danger

March 10, 2020

Following the release of YouTuber Shane Dawson’s hidden camera conspiracy video, some raised concerns about being watched. This, coupled with the increase in reports of hidden cameras in Airbnbs and other short term rentals, begs the question: is our privacy guaranteed?

After a frightening encounter on a trip to Spain, junior Kate Gage was left with many questions and a concern for her privacy.

As Gage was going to bed, she and her roommate, junior Dare Kroeten, noticed a light coming from behind their mirror. When they pried the mirror off the wall and used their phones to record what was behind it, they were shocked at what they found.

“It was this poorly lit room with stains everywhere. There were electrical outlets, things plugged in. It looked like someone could live there,” Gage said. “And so we were like, ‘Can someone come into our room? Can you get in and out of this area? And is anyone in there and can people be in there?’”

Although there was no camera or person behind the mirror, Gage said she and Kroeten were rattled. Eventually, they decided they were not in danger and went to bed.

As technology improves, privacy worsens

Gage’s story may seem far-fetched, but Wisconsin teacher David Kruchten was accused of planting surveillance devices in three of his students’ hotel rooms, according to the Star Tribune. On Feb. 5, he was charged in Hennepin County District Court with three counts of interfering with privacy.

Just this week in New Jersey, a man was arrested for allegedly filming two women in a Barnes & Noble bathroom after 18-year-old Madison Delaney saw the camera, according to CNN.

Advancements in cameras have made it easier to use and abuse small cameras, according to technology education teacher Trevor Paulson.

Technology has improved greatly over the last decade. Those lenses, the electronics, the sensors, all the stuff that goes into building them so that you can record images.”

— Trevor Paulson

Though cameras can be used to surveil people, it isn’t the sole use of this new technology. Paulson said the Robotics team is able to use these cameras in a productive way — vision tracking.

“We end up mounting them on robots so you can get a field view of where we’re going at because if you’re standing on a wall, you don’t get to see first person what is going on,” Paulson said.

Cameras may be used to prevent crime, even if they are not turned on, according to Tom Murphy, a staff psychologist for the Indian Health Board of Minneapolis.

“Where I work, we have this parking lot across the street where we all park our cars and there’s a sign there that says you are under surveillance, and there’s a camera there. The camera is not hooked up to anything,” Murphy said. “But it’s hopefully some level of deterrent, that someone with a passing thought of breaking into a car would see that and move along.”

The law is on our side

Although privacy law varies on a state-by-state basis, it all boils down to the central idea of a reasonable expectation of privacy, according to Nadeem Schwen, a privacy attorney and co-chair of the International Association of Privacy Professionals.

“Privacy, especially when we’re talking about film and recording or voice, is founded in a lot of different legal protections. But it comes down to thematically: what is the reasonable expectation that a particular person has any given situation or location. Do you have a reasonable expectation of privacy?” Schwen said. “Generally, when you’re out walking about outside in public, you do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy, and so you can typically be recorded or photographed by anyone.”

Gage said she expects a certain level of privacy in places like Airbnb rentals and hotel rooms, which makes the invasion in Spain much more alarming.

“Just the thought that you’re there and you know it’s someone else’s property, but you still expect a certain amount of privacy. Especially in a place where you’re paying money to be there,” Gage said. “You want a little bit of a safe, secure feeling.”

Schwen said legislators, such as Reps. Mohamud Noor and Steve Elkins are working on passing new, more comprehensive privacy laws in Minnesota. This includes proposed House Bill 2917, which aims to create more protection for personal data.

Privacy is going through a renaissance, at least in the United States. In the U.S., it’s not, legally-speaking, traditionally treated as a fundamental human right.”

— Nadeem Schwen

“However, it is in a lot of other countries,” Schwen said. “Regions like Europe, for example, have historically treated privacy and the right to privacy as a fundamental human right … they also can’t really violate those rights without violating some sort of law.”

Schwen said there is gray area in the prosecution of this invasion of privacy. The degree of danger the victim is put in can direct the severity of the punishment. This gray area becomes even murkier in the case of Airbnbs, as the rules for camera usage are dictated by the company’s Terms of Service.

Behavior changes and paranoia

When Gage discovered the room behind her mirror in their hotel, she felt her right to privacy was violated by the mere possibility of being watched.

“I felt so freaked out, just knowing the possibility of someone could be watching you,” Gage said. “You always hear about stuff like that and you never think it’s going to happen to you, which it didn’t happen to me, but the possibility was really real.”

By having that one security taken away from you, (or) feel like it might be, I think that’s why people get so freaked out.”

— Kate Gage

The effects of being recorded or watched can affect people in both good and bad ways, according to Murphy.

“It’s a double-edged thing, it can change people’s behaviors in a positive way,” Murphy said. “But at the same time, it can be negatively used against you without your consent. That is a real problem.”

According to Gage, as someone who has experience with an invasion of privacy, the fact that so much information is readily available online about her does not make it less scary.

“It just seems like so much is out there, that in a living space the only thing you can really control is how much you put out there,” Gage said. “By having that one security taken away from you, (or) feel like it might be, I think that’s why people get so freaked out.”

Schwen urges people to exercise caution when staying in short-term rentals, but not to let paranoia overtake reason.

“You should feel safe from being recorded if someone was following the law in the bathrooms and bedrooms and that kind of stuff. But as Airbnb says, they totally allow cameras in public living spaces like living rooms, so keep that in mind. I would say look around. Don’t be paranoid,” Schwen said. “I also wouldn’t do anything in any sort of public space, or space controlled by another person that I wouldn’t want recorded.”

If people feel they are overly paranoid, they should talk to a trusted peer or profesional, according to Murphy. He also said the odds of being recorded or watched are very slim, so it shouldn’t be an issue in most cases.

“Life is not like the movies, life is often more boring than you see. For example, I have clients that think all these people are watching them,” Murphy said. “I tell them, ‘the amount of money it would take, the amount of resources you’re talking about would be a huge enterprise. Frankly, you’re probably not that important.’ So, kind of reality check yourself about the level of scrutiny that you might be under.”

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