Peeping Tom's secret weapon

The rapid growth of camera phones has had a sinister side effect - men taking sneaky snaps up the skirts of unsuspecting women. And, Hugh Wilson discovers, they are then pored over by a global audience of voyeurs
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The Independent Online

It was the normal Friday night routine. A few friends, a few drinks, and the weekly struggle to avoid falling asleep on the last train home. Nichola's eyes were closed when she heard the click. When she opened them, a mobile phone was hovering somewhere around her knees.

It was the normal Friday night routine. A few friends, a few drinks, and the weekly struggle to avoid falling asleep on the last train home. Nichola's eyes were closed when she heard the click. When she opened them, a mobile phone was hovering somewhere around her knees.

"The man sat opposite had taken a picture up my skirt," says Nichola Cortese, a teacher from Manchester. "It was a camera phone - I have the same one. He pulled it away and pretended to be texting. It was late and I was shocked, so I just moved to another carriage, but I feel sick that he got that picture, and probably sent it to all his friends."

Meanwhile, over on mobog.com, an online gallery of camera-phone snaps, the message board is crackling with excited responses to a picture that has been downloaded from a mobile phone. "That pic is awesomely sharp for its size," writes one impressed punter. "This picture gets better every time I see it," purrs another. The shot is taken from below, capturing the thighs and underwear of an anonymous and unsuspecting woman. This time it's not a picture of Nichola. But, next time, it could be.

It's impossible to put an exact figure on it, but it wouldn't be an exaggeration to suggest that tens of thousands of women are unknowingly appearing on pornographic websites. They are topless at a beach, bikini-clad at the pool, bending over in the street, or on the escalator in a shopping centre. They're enjoying a private moment in a secluded beauty spot or a public one in a crowded bar. And they don't have to be showing much flesh to make it to the fetishistic reaches of the web. A hint of bra will do it for some voyeurs. A flash of thong can be an erotic treat.

But the real kudos is still reserved for those men who risk public humiliation and (occasionally) criminal prosecution to get the real money shots - pictures that literally go "up skirt" or "down blouse", or are surreptitiously taken under the doors of lavatory cubicles, or in a public shower. "Upskirt" voyeurism predates the internet, but the internet has given it wings - Google returns more than four million results. Some of that is professional porn staged to look vaguely clandestine, but sites offering pictures of women taken without their knowledge or consent are both widespread and popular.

And voyeurism is going mainstream. Projectvoyeur.com was the first free site to mix pictures sent in by willing amateurs with furtive shots of unsuspecting women in public places. In a reversal of the usual net trend, the site is British, and a host of American imitators are rushing to catch up. It attracts more than 600,000 visitors a day, along with scores of contributions from Clicking Toms around the world.

Rapid advances in the technology of peeping are fuelling the popularity of sites such as Projectvoyeur. "When we first began, most of our contributions were sent as normal photographs copied via a scanner," says Terry, founder of Projectvoyeur. "Today, 99.9 per cent of all we receive is from digital cameras. The difference in quality is impressive. Also, digital cameras allow you to immediately distribute the images, whereas it's quite a hassle for non-techies to scan in normal photographs and then e-mail them to us."

Jack Whitfield, of Privatevoyeur, another site that attracts more than half-a-million viewers per day, agrees: "I've seen the genre grow substantially over the past five years. Five years ago, it was difficult finding any type of voyeur material, like 'upskirt' pictures, but it's really come far since those days. Digital cameras and now phone cameras make it easier for the voyeur to take the photos and put them online, where they can be immediately accessed by the world."

For the dedicated voyeur, the camera phone, with its multiplicity of purpose, is a killer gadget. Take a camera to a nudist beach, and suspicions will be aroused. Take a mobile phone, and you can be texting a friend or waiting for a call. Worldwide camera-phone sales are likely to reach 150 million this year, or more than 25 per cent of all mobile-phone sales. And with each new model the picture quality improves.

There have been prosecutions for camera-phone voyeurism across South-east Asia and in the States, where one user was recently arrested for trying to take "upskirt" snaps in a grocery store. In Hong Kong, the arrest rate is running at one a month. But there is a widespread fear that, in the hands of a skilled operator, digital voyeurism - carried out with inconspicuous equipment and downloaded instantly to the internet - can be all but undetectable.

That fear has prompted drastic measures around the world. Saudi Arabia and Jeddah, for instance, have banned camera phones altogether. In Korea, manufacturers are being forced to design camera phones that beep when pictures are taken. In parts of Britain, Australia, Norway, America, Germany and Switzerland, the phones have been banned fromswimming-pools, schools, gyms, parks and beaches. Earlier this year, Chicago became the largest American city to bar camera phones from changing-rooms, lavatories and other "privacy areas". Legislators in America and New Zealand are preparing laws that specifically target digital Peeping Toms.

But in reality the law is having trouble keeping up. A new offence of voyeurism that came into effect in Britain in May focuses on "observing another person doing a private act" in a place that "would reasonably expect to provide privacy". Clearly, that doesn't cover pictures taken in a bar or on the beach. According to a spokeswoman for the Home Office, the act of taking such a picture "could" constitute a public-order offence, but voyeur sites that accept the material operate with impunity.

And, of course, legislators in the UK come up against the old internet problem of globalisation. Websites that can be viewed here are not necessarily based here. An American website owner, "Peeper", argues that once women venture out of their homes in revealing clothes, they're pretty much fair game. "If someone decides to dress in a revealing manner, they shouldn't cry foul if the other side (the voyeurs) don't play fair," he says. "Would you waltz around with very flashy jewellery or a Rolex watch expecting not to maybe get mugged?" It's a morally unsavoury position, but not one that the law in the US or Europe has any consistent response to. The notion of privacy in public spaces is one that lawmakers are struggling with worldwide. In California, for instance, the law states that if a person can't be identified, "there's no harm".

And some experts predict that, thanks to legal confusion and advancing technology, there could be worse to come. The ubiquity of mobile phones and tiny digital cameras will further fuel the market for voyeur porn, turn consumers into producers, and embolden all those who supply the material.

Dr Michael Johnson is an American psychologist who specialises in sexual addiction, and has treated men who take and distribute "upskirt" porn. He says: "The ease and low cost of this kind of voyeurism seems to be driving the increase. All you have to do is look at the TV adverts - in the States at least - to get the implication that cell-phone cameras can be used to victimise people by taking sexualised photos of them. Of course, in the adverts, the women are shown as flattered, willing participants of the intrusion. In reality, I doubt women would see 'upskirt' photos as flattering or acceptable."

And Dr Johnson believes that this is an especially pernicious form of pornography. "The people who create and consume this sort of voyeuristic content, in which the victim is utterly unaware, are blending erotic objectification with anger at their objects. There is often a sense of 'serves you right' directed at the victim."

Diana Russell, author of Against Pornography: The Evidence of Harm, agrees that technology is fuelling the creation of voyeuristic material, and points out that clandestine pictures of women will be circulating on the internet for years to come, with the potential to ruin relationships and careers. "Who would believe these women if they said the participation was against their wishes and previously unknown to them," she says.

Moreover, some consumers of pornography quickly become desensitised to the material, seeking out ever more hardcore or sadistic experiences, Dr Russell believes.

In fairness, you'd be hard-pressed to find sadistic images on Projectvoyeur or Privatevoyeur. This is the comparatively tame, free end of the voyeur market, where furtive "upskirt" or topless beach shots mix with soft-core pictures of willing subjects, happily posing for their partners' cameras. Even this is problematic, however.

Agreeing to pose for your boyfriend is not the same as consenting to have the images plastered over the internet. Terry admits that, "We've had many requests to remove images from women whose spouses have sent photos to us without them knowing, and we remove them."

But only if the women find out. As technology becomes more discreet and the sites that accept voyeuristic material proliferate, more and more women will become unknowing, unwilling stars of the adult internet.

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