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As public outrage mounts over illegal spycams and infringement on privacy rights, experts are calling on China to zoom in on the issue with clearer laws and stricter penalties

By NewsChina Updated May.1

These days, what happens in hotels doesn’t always stay in hotels.  

Cases of hidden cams and recording equipment used to secretly spy on guests in hotels and other accommodations are increasingly catching the public eye.  

Usually, these near-invisible cameras are embedded in everyday objects such as electrical sockets, alarm clocks, smoke detectors and picture frames.  

“What is horrible is that there really is a pair of eyes on you,” said a police officer surnamed Qi with the Shenzhen Public Security Bureau, Luohu branch.  

Qi said that he was shocked at how prevalent the problem had become after participating in a citywide crackdown on illegal cameras in late 2019. 

A major target was the Huaqiangbei market, a paradise for electronic equipment and components in Shenzhen where sales of spycams were rampant. Vendors have disappeared following the recent crackdown, Qi said. 

Prevalence of Peeping
He Zhihui has a knack for finding spycams. As a consultant for a private security firm in Shenzhen, He has located more than 1,000 hidden devices for clients.  

Despite efforts from law enforcement to curb illegal surveillance over the years, He says China’s bug problem just won’t go away.  

“I’ve been sweeping for spycams for over a decade and have seen several crackdowns,” he told NewsChina. “The industry [for spy cameras] is just waiting out the storm.”  

Since the coronavirus outbreak early this year, He has been based out of his hometown in Tianmen, Hubei Province. Recently, a client from a local hotel chain contacted him for advice about hidden camera detecting equipment.  

He said hotels make up a significant part of his clientele. “Secret cameras at hotels are usually either installed by guests or hotel employees,” He said. 

On January 8, 2020, Guangdong Public Security Department held a press conference about their 2019 campaign targeting the illegal production and sales of surveillance equipment, the largest in recent years. An officer with the department’s cybercrime unit surnamed Xie told NewsChina that online crime accounts for nearly half of all reported crime in the province. Among those cases, Xie said crimes involving hidden cameras are second only to fraud. 

In September 2019, the Ministry of Public Security provided around 100,000 case leads to Guangdong law enforcement. As a result, Xie’s unit found 4,000 illegally recorded videos taken at government agencies, businesses, hotels, massage parlors and private homes. 

“There are many people involved in the sales and use of hidden cameras so it is very difficult to crack down,” Xie said. “Instead, we took great efforts to disrupt the industrial chain.” 

This chain includes app development and manufacturing and sales of equipment specifically used for hidden cameras. Xie said that almost all spy cameras in China originated from the city’s Huaqiangbei market, which provided all the components necessary for assembly.  

On November 13, 2019, Guangdong Public Security Department detained 238 suspects in Guangdong and Zhejiang provinces and destroyed over one million confiscated cameras and components. 

In addition to hotels, He Zhihui told our reporter that businesses often contact him with concerns about spying competitors. He recalled of one business client: “I didn’t find any cameras at first. But as I was leaving, I happened to discover a pinhole camera buried in rocks and grass, and even in a heating rod inside an aquarium,” he said. 

He said that most individuals who seek out his services are involved in marital disputes. 

Mini cameras have been widely available on e-commerce platforms for years. But legal experts said that innovations like facial recognition, hi-def night vision and long battery life are even more cause for concern.  

“Spy cameras are not a new problem, but they’ve once again become a focus because of technological improvements that pose unprecedented threats to privacy rights,” said Shi Jiayou, a law professor at the Renmin University of China. “These new technologies have made illegal filming activities very easy to carry out at low cost.”  

Shi said an equal danger is the growing black market for videos. “Some pornographic websites acquire and host videos priced according to content and clarity,” he said. 

According to a Southern Metropolis Daily report, one site offers live broadcasts from 20 secret cameras at hotels or homes for 168 yuan (US$24). Other packages include eight families and 12 hotels for 268 yuan (US$38) or 10 families and 15 hotels for 388 yuan (US$56).  

Eye on the Law
Cracking down on the industry has been a challenge for law enforcement. Officer Qi told our reporter that gathering evidence is difficult, especially for cases involving data sold abroad. What’s more, manufacturers of illegal cameras seldom leave any financial records. Many links in the production and sales of cameras are unregulated, he added. 

But professor Shi Jiayou argues that departmental overlap has also created a supervision vacuum. Shi also said hidden cameras and surveillance equipment should require permits from local authorities while law enforcement and market management bureaus conduct oversight work. E-commerce platforms should also shoulder some responsibility and monitor the sale of spycams. 

According to Qi, the greatest player in the proliferation of hidden cameras is demand. “Nobody supervises buyers and users, and market demand has driven the sales of spy cameras,” he said. “Raising public awareness is necessary. In addition, we must end campaign-style law enforcement and instead create a comprehensive and proper governance system.” 

China lacks clear legislation on covert filming. A 2009 update to The Tort Liability Law mentions the right to privacy but does not define it clearly. Over the years, legal interpretation and precedent have largely guided privacy policy, but this has resulted in inconsistent rulings and limited protections. 

Qi said most of the time law enforcement will let off offenders with a warning, but those who have invaded privacy would be detained or penalized. For example, in the recent campaign against hidden cameras in Guangdong Province, 238 people were detained and more than 3,000 people were reprimanded. 

“There is a clause in the Criminal Law about the illegal use of recording equipment but actually there have been very few convictions over the years,” Qi told NewsChina. “[Judgments] often involve other illegal activities such as extortion, pornography and obtaining State secrets.” 

To address this loophole, a revision in the Civil Law regarding right of personality added that organizations and individuals are not allowed to film spaces such as private homes and hotels without consent. 

Professor Shi called it a milestone for privacy rights in China, explaining that previous law focused on handling a crime after it is committed and not preventative measures.  

Shi pointed out that the government should also strengthen the role of prevention, which is a worldwide trend in similar legislation. “Public places such as hotels have the responsibility to take preventive measures,” he said. 

In many countries, offenders are both criminally and civilly liable for illegal surveillance. For example, France revised its criminal code in 2018 for surveillance crimes to carry a two-year prison sentence and 30,000-euro (US$32,900) fine.  

“These practices are worthy of learning from,” Shi said. “It’s high time we increased the cost of breaking the law.” 

Huaqiangbei Market in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, provides most of the spy cameras sold in China