Illegal surveillance cases on the rise in NY county

They're easy to hide, cheap to buy, and simple to use. Evolving technology makes them more useful than ever. They can ease personnel costs, reassure parents who employ baby-sitters and boost security.

Is it any wonder surveillance cameras are tucked away seemingly everywhere?

Recent arrests - of a photographer accused of videotaping a mother and children changing their clothes, and an airport employee charged with hiding a camera in the women's bathroom - highlight just how common these devices have become. And just this week, three Nassau women are among five former employees of a Manhasset cardiologist who charged in a suit that he secretly took pictures of them with the video camera.

The decreasing cost of surveillance - a video system can be installed for under $1,000, and cameras can cost as little $200 - as well as the simplicity of connecting them to the Internet have driven the cameras' popularity, experts said. An industry group estimates that $3.2 billion was spent on surveillance devices in 2007 - not including home security. That was a 35 percent increase from 2006 alone.

"You have them being used in just about every application conceivable," said Mark Visbal, the Virginia-based Security Industry Association's director of research and technology.

Surveillance cameras may be marketed with an eye toward safety, but as the arrests seem to show, they're not always used that way. New York State passed a law in 2003 making unlawful surveillance - the taping of someone without their consent in a place where they could reasonably expect privacy - a felony.

Dubbed Stephanie's Law, it was championed by a Bay Shore woman, Stephanie Fuller, who was horrified - after she found her landlord videotaping her bedroom - to learn that under the existing laws, he'd serve no jail time.

Since 2004, Nassau County has handled 63 cases of unlawful surveillance - 17 cases in 2004, 10 in both 2005 and 2006, 24 in 2007 and two so far this year, the district attorney's office said. A spokesman for the Suffolk district attorney's office, which is handling the two recent cases, said figures were not available.

Joe Boscia, the owner of Security Zone, a security equipment shop in Greenwich Village, said most of his customers are seeking "nanny cams" to monitor their baby-sitters.

Videotaping nannies in the houses where they work is legal because they could not reasonably expect privacy, Boscia said. Videotaping the nanny in the bathroom is another matter. He said he often educates customers about the legal lines.

"We'd be remiss if we didn't," he said. "They have to sign off on their invoice that they're going to use it within the law."

Hidden cameras, revealed

As video surveillance equipment becomes more ubiquitous, hidden cameras are being stashed in increasingly improbable objects, such as smoke detectors, potted plants, ceiling fans and MP3 player docks.

Some of the new technology includes:

Video bugs - cameras about 1 1/2 by 1 1/2 inches with a pinhole lens - that can be tucked into a tissue box.

Motion-activated recorders that allow users to monitor anyone entering their home while they're out, and record with a date and time stamp.

For those who suspect they're being watched, a detector will pick up on even the tiniest lenses in the room by emitting light rays that any lenses present will reflect back.