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).