Three times a week, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., women in navy blue vests with hidden camera detectors in their hands inspect public restrooms around Seoul. They are South Korea’s first spy cam inspection team.
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The city’s program started in August 2016 with 50 women. Now, the team consists of 39 trained women and men who regularly inspect places vulnerable to illegal filming, such as public restrooms, subway stations and changing rooms.
“Victims are often left with no power to exercise control over the videos once they circulate online without their consent,” Kim Yeo-jin, director of Korea Cyber Sexual Violence Response Center, an organization that provides support service for victims of cyber sexual violence, told ABC News. “Overseas porn websites often refuse to cooperate with the South Korean law enforcement. Plus, the anonymity in cyberspace makes the punishment extremely difficult.”
In 2017, a male victim reported to the center that he found a sex tape of himself with his girlfriend on a porn website. It turned out that the footage was taken from a hidden camera installed in a motel room unbeknownst to them.
More than 6,000 crimes related to illegal filming were reported in 2017, a five-fold increase since 2010, according to the Korean National Police Agency.
This phenomenon, dubbed the “spy cam epidemic,” sparked public outrage once again in March when police arrested suspects accused of installing hidden cameras in motels.
Even female celebrities have fallen victim to illegal filming. In September 2018 a television crew member was caught installing a hidden camera in the shape of a portable smartphone battery charger inside their private rooms, according to Seoul Gangnam police.
Son Hae-young, a spy cam detection expert, told ABC News that a number of hidden cameras are disguised as everyday objects -- remote controls, computer mice, wristwatches, coat hooks -- to not arouse suspicion.
Women as well as companies and government agencies have been combating the hidden camera phenomenon through a number of measures.
When using public restrooms in subway stations, bus terminals and shopping malls, women "have sealed up any tiny, suspicious-looking holes on the walls of their stalls and in door hinges with tissue papers and stickers in fear of mini spy cams that may be installed there,” Lee Won-up, director of Spy-Zone Korea, which specializes in spy cam detection, told ABC News.
Sales of spy cam detectors also skyrocketed following a series of digital sex crimes involving hidden cameras. South Korean e-commerce website G-Market saw a 333% increase in sales of those devices this March compared to the previous year.
As a more convenient way of detecting hidden cameras, some companies started selling portable detection cards with a layer of red cellophane paper that can be used with a smartphone. Users simply need to attach the card to the smartphone camera lens, turn on the camera flash and take a picture of the suspicious-looking spot. The resulting photo will have a bright flashing dot indicating the location of the spy cam lens.
Lee said his agency has been in demand by universities, corporations and homeowners especially after September 2017 when the South Korean government announced its plans to strengthen preventive measures and penalties to tackle digital sex crimes.
Other than the spy cam inspection team, Seoul Metropolitan Government announced this week that it will expand its hidden cam inspection areas to motels, bathhouses and beauty salons. It will also appoint 500 business owners and citizens as honorary spy inspection team members.
“The city will implement a regular inspection system to eradicate illegal filming, hoping that more people become aware that these areas will remain as the 'hidden cam-free zone,'" said Yoon Hee-cheon, director of Women’s Policy Division of the Seoul Metropolitan Government.
ABC News’ Joohee Cho, Hakyung Kate Lee and Sorah Choi contributed to this report.