N E W Y O R K, Aug. 7, 2001 -- Peeping Tom has crept into the computer age.
Good Morning America's consumer correspondent Greg Hunter found there is a new infrared video camera that allows users to see through peoples' clothes.
And some people are posting these nude pictures on the Internet, where they could be available to millions of eyeballs without the person in the picture knowing it. At least 12 Web sites feature pictures of women who look almost naked, even though they are wearing clothes or a swimsuit.
"It's a great way to be a Peeping Tom without having to climb a tree and look in the window," said Beth Givens of the Privacy Clearinghouse. "It's invisible to the person whose privacy is being violated … they don't know somebody has the ability to look under their clothes."
Like Ordinary Video Cameras
The cameras look like ordinary home video cameras equipped with night vision, infrared technology that allows users to take pictures in dark. But someone discovered that using night vision in broad daylight with a special filter allows the viewer to see through some clothes.
Sony discovered the cameras' X-ray ability in 1998 and quickly changed the way it manufactured its Nightvision cameras so they would not allow users to peer through clothes. But some people figured out how to modify the camera to get the see-through effect back and hundreds of the modified cameras are for sale on the Internet. The camera with all the filters sells for about $700 brand new, and is easy to obtain, Hunter found. Sony said it has no responsibility for altered or modified products.
Using the "X-ray camera" and two volunteer models, Hunter demonstrated that a viewer could see that the female model wore nothing under a black, patterned skirt and that a man has a tattoo that says "Sosa" under his shirt.
But he points out that both models knew they were being photographed, while most people who end up on the Internet sites he found do not know that they would end up there. Their pictures are taken on the street, at swimming pools, and even beaches.
Clothes Equal Privacy Rights
The cameras are so new, that even privacy advocates are surprised. Givens says that wearing clothes gives people a right to privacy.
"This technology violates that expectation of privacy it obliterates that expectation of privacy," Givens said.
So can women sue the photographers and the Web site owners who posted their pictures for invasion of privacy? Some believe that the question is a lawsuit waiting to happen.
"It's an outrage — I think it would outrage anyone," said Martha Davis, director of the National Organization for Women's Legal Defense fund. "You go out in the street you don't expect people to look under your clothes. It's such a basic expectation that any court in the country would find that this violates that right."
The owners of the Web sites featuring the nude pictures certainly don't seem to want their pictures taken. In an e-mail to ABCNEWS, one Web site operator declined to be interviewed.
"I do not want to be labeled a pervert," the web site operator wrote.
Criminal Penalties Possible
The cameras are very new, but legal experts say using them for voyeuristic purposes could carry criminal penalties, particularly under child pornography laws if people are photographing through the swimsuits of teen-agers or children.
But see-through technology like infrared and even more advanced thermal imaging is being used for good purposes, as well. The technology has helped firemen see through smoke and save lives.
Some cars are being equipped with infrared to help drivers see at night.
And the military protects its troops by using the technology to detect landmines. Some scientists are upset common Peeping Toms have misused infrared.
It may be a while before law catches up with technology to deal with X-ray cameras that spy through clothes. In the meantime, millions of ordinary home video cameras everywhere are making women uneasy.
"You really don't know if someone pointing that video camera actually has one of these night vision X-ray cameras," Davis said.