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A hidden camera or spy camera is a still or video camera used to record people without their knowledge. The term “hidden camera” is commonly used in TV shows, sometimes when subjects are unaware that they are being recorded, and usually lacking their knowledge and consent. The term “spy camera” is generally used when the subject would object to being recorded if they were aware of the camera's existence. In contrast, "security cameras" refer to cameras that are visible and/or accompanied by a warning notice of their presence.
The camera may be "hidden" because it is not visible to the subject being filmed, or is disguised as another object. Such a camera may not be visible to the subject, for example, because it is fitted with a long-focus lens and located beyond the view of the subject, or located, say, behind a two-way mirror. Hidden cameras can be built into commonly used objects such as television sets, smoke detectors, alarm clocks, motion detectors, ink pen caps, plants, and mobile phones. Hidden cameras may be used for household surveillance devices and may also be used commercially or industrially as spying. The proliferation and lower costs of video recording devices have led to an increase in the use of hidden cameras for legitimate surveillance need, as well as for entertainment and other purposes.
The use of hidden cameras raises personal privacy issues and there may be legal aspects to consider, depending on the jurisdiction in which use takes place.
A hidden camera can be wired or wireless. The former will be connected by cable to a viewing or recording device, such as a TV, VCR, network video recorder (NVR), digital video recorder (DVR), memory card or other data storage medium; whereas a wireless hidden camera can transmit a video signal to a receiver within a small radius, where the images may be viewed or recorded. Hidden cameras may also have an audio capability. A hidden camera may be activated manually, by remote control or be connected to a motion detector.
Wireless spy cameras are cameras that do not record to an internal memory but rather transmit video signal so that it can be recorded and viewed elsewhere. A wireless spy cam may transmit video online so that it can be viewed remotely or it may transmit video to a receiver that records to an internal memory card or DVR or may allow live viewing through a monitor. Despite the name, a "wireless" camera means the camera does not have wires or does not have to be plugged in for power. This is not the case. In regards to video recording cameras, the word wireless does not refer to the cameras power source but rather the cameras method of video transmission.
Ultraminiature still cameras have long been used for surreptitious photography, using film as small as 8×11 mm. In particular, Minox cameras were used for clandestinely photographing documents close up for espionage. Today, spy cameras can be bought by anyone for as low as US$6, and these modern cameras can be as small as a keychain and take high resolution video.
Hidden cameras may be installed within common household objects to monitor and record the activities of caregivers. These are commonly referred to as "nanny cams." The legality of using hidden cameras is usually a subject of controversy. For example, a case involving a nanny that was allegedly caught violently shaking a baby was thrown out as worthless evidence; due to issues regarding video quality, not legality. Some hidden camera television shows have also led to lawsuits or being denied to air by the people who were trapped in set-ups that they found unpleasant.
In South Korea, hidden cameras (abbreviated to Molka in Korean) proliferated in the 2010s and enable the spread of voyeuristic images and videos. The term Molka can refer to both the actual cameras as well as the footage later posted online.
The use of hidden cameras is generally permitted under UK law, if used in a legal manner and towards legitimate ends. Individuals may use covert surveillance in their own home to spy on others, in the workplace to monitor employees, outside of a domestic or commercial property for security purposes, and in most security situations where there is a just need to do so. There are a number of laws under the Data Protection Act and Human Rights Acts that may impact on the use of hidden cameras.
In any type of covert surveillance, footage should only be used for the purpose for which it has been taken, which must be a legitimate security reason. The person in possession of the footage is responsible for its use, and must only retain footage for as long as it is reasonably needed. It is not permitted to release the footage to third parties except when there is a legal necessity.
It is illegal under UK law to deploy covert cameras in areas where individuals would have an expectation of privacy, such as bathrooms, changing rooms and locker rooms, or plant a hidden camera in someone else's home, or an area someone else owns.
In the United States, nanny cams are legal although most are sold without audio capabilities since it is prohibited to intercept audio communications surreptitiously.
US Code Title 18, Chapter 119, Section 2512 prohibits the interception of oral communication by "surreptitious manner" such as a hidden camera, and so most nanny cams are not available with audio recording. Though some on the market may be available with the ability to record audio, these cameras should not be used due to the illegality of the recordings they produce. Nanny cams are legal in all 50 states, but it is illegal in 13 states to record audio without express or written consent of the nanny being recorded. This falls under the federal government's 'wire tapping' laws.
In reality television
Hidden cameras are also sometimes used in reality television to catch participants in unusual or absurd situations. Participants will either know they will be filmed, but not always exactly when or where, or do not know they have been filmed until later, at which point they may sign a release or give consent to the footage being produced for a show. This latter subgenre of unwitting participants began in the 1940s with Allen Funt's Candid Microphone theatrical short films. In 1996 the genre was given an overhaul by Travis Draft who introduced the glasses cam with his show Buzzkill. The show took a hidden camera to a whole new level where the performer (Draft himself and Cronies) were the focal point.
- Rohrlich, Justin; Gershgorn, Dave (November 9, 2018). "The DEA and ICE are hiding surveillance cameras in streetlights". Quartz.
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- "Nanny Cleared of Violently Shaking Baby". ABC News. 21 March 2006.
- Gibson, Jenna. "K-Pop's Sexual Assault Scandal Is the Tip of the Iceberg". Foreign Policy. Retrieved 2019-06-08.
- US Code Title 18, Chapter 119, Section 2512
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- Media related to Spy cameras at Wikimedia Commons