Little brother is watching you

Stop worrying about the State: the boom in cheap surveillance equipment has proved a boon to voyeurs next door.

Simon Davies
Tuesday 25 August 1998 23:02

It is not every day that someone gives you free satellite TV, so, when a neighbour in the downstairs flat offered to install the kit "as part of a test", Jane and Phil Morris were delighted. That was in 1995, and Jane remembers how thrilled she was as the kindly neighbour crawled all over her bedroom, meticulously wiring up the television, new speakers and the satellite box.

Two years later, the couple were trying to come to terms with the news that, ever since, the neighbour had been spying on them, using miniature cameras hidden in the satellite kit. Liverpool police had visited the Morris home after cameras had been discovered in another flat. They found four hidden cameras in their bedroom, including one which was equipped with an infra-red night vision facility.

In fact, the neighbour had been watching Jane and Phil in their bedroom every night for two years. Police seized 150 tapes, including 53 with film of the Morrises' most intimate moments.

"We went numb," explains Jane. "I don't think people understand the impact of this sort of thing."

Meanwhile, in Brighton, Esther Bull, a 19-year-old student, was also trying to come to terms with the discovery that her landlord had been secretly filming her from behind a two-way mirror in the bathroom.

"He was recording us for a couple of years," explained Esther. "Even now I can't easily come to terms with what happened. It's a terrible experience."

Esther and her friends discovered the miniature camera and video tapes after becoming suspicious about the mirror, "which looked very artificial - very plastic". Behind it they uncovered the camera and video-taping equipment.

Esther, Jane and Phil are the most recent victims of a peeping tom craze using cheap off-the-shelf camera technology. Their stories are told tonight on BBC2's Private Investigations programme.

Once the province of secret service agents, these new technologies are now within the reach of anybody. Cameras measuring an inch square and able to see in virtual darkness are freely available on the British market for less than pounds 100. Thousands are sold each month. The popular Viewmate system, for example, can be hooked into a television or a telephone wire and sells for pounds 89 on the high street.

Cameras are available in many shapes and sizes. Some more expensive devices are the size of a cigarette packet and are capable of transmitting video and sound signals. They sell for around pounds 300. You can even buy a camouflaged unit concealed inside a smoke alarm, fire extinguisher, stereo, whisky bottle or sports trophy.

Anyone can buy these cameras without a licence. Anyone can install them and record images from them without breaching criminal law. If you manage to sidestep the law of trespass, a camera can be legally concealed in the bedroom of a friend or of a neighbour. If you can avoid unintentionally recording children, you will not be prosecuted for filming any intimate activity - as Esther and the Morrises soon discovered.

Joe Benton, the Morrises' MP, says the situation has left him "disgusted". He is seeking a meeting with Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, to argue the case for new legislation. "I'm very upset. I can only describe this sort of practice as heinous," he said.

But Mr Benton is unlikely to find a sympathetic ear in the Government. Successive Home Office ministers have opposed anything that even resembles a privacy law, and have resisted attempts by Brussels to widen the scope of data protection laws to cover closed-circuit television (CCTV). This attitude is motivated, in part, by a need to protect the activities of police, who routinely break into houses to plant bugs.

The Government's reluctance to pass laws banning covert filming also highlights the vital role played by CCTV in law enforcement and crime prevention. According to a recent report by the House of Lords, camera technology is becoming ubiquitous. They now keep watch over a great many public and semi-public areas throughout Britain. All Arriva buses in London are fitted with hidden cameras, as are many trains and cabs. Scotland Yard says police will now use covert cameras to detect crime - a policy which is being followed by councils, private investigators, government agencies and hospitals. Newham Council in east London, for example, recently announced that it will place hidden cameras in housing estates. Meanwhile, several police forces are considering fitting minicams in police helmets and clothing.

The cameras can be used for countless innovative purposes, and authorities are slowly pushing out their limits. Hospitals now use covert video surveillance (CVS) to monitor parents who visit their children. These videos are taken by cameras and microphones located behind the walls of specially prepared surveillance rooms and are used in cases of unexplained child injury or illness. Where authorities believe there may be a case of abuse, the child is relocated in one of these rooms where the parents can be monitored.

However, Gwyn Tenney is one mother who was victimised by CVS. Her second child had died from cot death in 1988 in circumstances that had not led to any suspicion of foul play. When Gwyn had a third child in 1991, she and the child were placed under surveillance by a hospital-based monitoring programme. The baby had stopped breathing on several occasions, and hospital authorities were concerned that Gwyn might be responsible.

In 1992 Gwyn's child was taken for observation to North Staffordshire hospital. Gwyn was asked to live in a room adjacent to the baby's. She did not know that, for three weeks, four pin-hole cameras were watching her every movement.

The cameras watched while Gwyn and her husband engaged in what she diplomatically describes as "heavy petting". What the cameras did not record was any instance of abuse. For 16 days, the baby had been confined in isolation to the cot, with the mother under strict instructions not to take it out.

Images from CCTV cameras - covert and overt - are routinely used in film and media productions. The commercial distribution two years ago of the Caught In The Act video involving people in a variety of intimate situations created widespread anxiety. In 1996 a Brentwood man complained that images of his attempted suicide had been broadcast on national television.

Meanwhile, a growing stream of letters is appearing in local newspapers complaining that surveillance cameras are intruding into people's homes. There is concern that the technology has become a honeypot for perverts. Even within the relatively tight constraints of city-centre CCTV cameras, there is some evidence that cameras are used for deviant purposes.

One camera operator in Glamorgan responsible for controlling the area's CCTV network has been convicted on more than 200 obscenity charges after using cameras to spy on women and then making obscene phone calls to them from the control room.

Researchers at the University of Hull say it is not uncommon to find voyeurs amongst camera operators. Clive Norris, of Hull's School of Comparative and Applied Social Sciences, says: "Although CCTV has been sold as a protector for women, we found that in a significant minority of cases the technology is used for voyeuristic purposes."

Norris and his colleagues found that 10 per cent of the time spent filming women was motivated by voyeurism. "It is not uncommon for operators to make `greatest hits' compilations," he said.

Jane Morris has decided to establish a campaign to raise awareness of the problem. She says that camera technology is "getting out of control" and must be brought within the scope of law. "I'm sure that some system of licensing can be introduced. There has to be a cut-off point where the public's interest in surveillance comes to an end."

The campaign - Operation Peeping Tom - is being sponsored by the civil rights group, Privacy International, which recently gave evidence to the House of Lords calling for an outright ban on the sale of hidden cameras in the High Street.

The campaign also aims to help victims of camera abuse. Jane says her ordeal was made worse because she had no one to talk to. Esther had a similar experience. "I went through a range of emotions, including acute embarrassment. It would have been nice to talk to others who had been through it."

To contact Operation Peeping Tom call Jane Morris on 0151-476 1865. `Private Investigations' is on BBC2 tonight at 7.30pm

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