For good or bad, privacy nowadays is elusive

Security personnel keep an eye on security cameras in a local retail store.
Security personnel keep an eye on security cameras in a local retail store. File photo

Emery Goad, a private investigator, gets spy tools magazine mailed to his office.

P.I. Catalog sells disguised spy cameras, stealth pens, toe-clip cameras and keychains that are actually stealth voice recorders.

Goad doesn’t need or want most of those tools. But he suspects other people do.

So many thieves in the world, he said.

And so many loved ones to watch.

P.I. Catalog advertises cheap but high performance tools anybody can buy these days to spy on shoplifters, parking lots, offices and employees with sticky fingers. Theft drives a lot of this market.

But what also intrigues Goad, given human nature, is that people could easily use these tools to spy on spouses, girlfriends, boyfriends, parents, children, babysitters … and anybody else.

Kiss your privacy goodbye, Goad said.

Lawyers, cops, legislators – they say the same thing these days.

They say we should assume we’re being watched 24/7. And not only by Big Brother government.

Reverse peephole

“StickIt,” for example, advertised in P.I. Catalog, is a “Motion Activated Covert Video System that you just stick anywhere!”

StickIt devices look like light switches or electrical outlets, and cost $295 on sale.

They are disguised video cameras. “Small and portable Stick-It systems can be stuck on any wall in a matter of seconds and your worries for covert video surveillance evidence gathering are over!” the description says.

The catalog also sells cameras that look like religious crucifixes.

One video surveillance camera, the HT-18 ($195), is disguised as a baseball cap.

Some recorders look like key chains. Or they look like ink pens, such as the Stealth Pen 3 ($169).

They sell GPS tracking equipment and body-worn cameras.

For those who don’t like to be spied upon, the catalog carries “Countermeasures.”

The FS-MU1 Scrambler ($269 retail), for example, “keeps your cell phone conversations between two parties only.” The Protector Pen Protect 1205 ($285) “is a reliable and stylish device that will easily and quickly help you to check for the presence of bugging devices in any given area.”

The reverse peephole viewer ($129 retail), according to its catalog description, “would let the user such as law enforcement or bail recovery scope out a situation inside a room silently before entering.”

Is privacy obsolete?

Can other people legally spy on us in our private moments, with no consequences?

Not necessarily, said Mike Kautsch, who teaches media law and other courses at the University of Kansas School of Law.

There is the video voyeurism act, for example, he said. It’s a federal statute that provides some protection. There are also an array of state laws, everywhere, providing protections of some kind or another.

But laws are not keeping up with the rapid challenges to privacy created by the technical and social media changes evolving around us, he said.

Voyeurism. Cops and spying. Drones. People spying on each other. Hackers. Employers spying on employees. Data miners picking over our shopping habits.

And, he said: “Everybody’s got a camera now, watching and recording everyone else. And that is, in a way, an unconscious step toward a society where everybody is under surveillance all the time. No one is thinking deeply about that.”

He’s trying to contribute to the conversation, including with a seminar he’s planning for late April in Kansas. But he sounds pessimistic.

“Privacy is obsolete,” he said. “The question now is, how do we cope with that?”

People catch on

Goad is right about two things, Sgt. Trevor McDonald said.

There are lots of thieves out there. And now, lots of cameras.

McDonald directs the six detectives in the larceny unit of the Wichita Police Department. The thieves remain bold, he said.

At retail big stores, thieves wear sunglasses and pull a hood up around their heads. Among other techniques, they stuff stolen goods in bulky clothes. “You can conceal a lot in bulky clothes,” he said.

Wichita police, according to numbers compiled on their website, investigated 15,685 larcenies in 2013 and 16,281 the year before.

Larcenies are the form of theft people commit when they steal at a public place, McDonald said, such as on a sidewalk stealing from a car or in a store stealing from a shelf.

“I wish we could dwindle it down to five or 10 a year, down from 15,000 a year,” McDonald said. “Unreasonable? Yes, I am.”

Goad said the big retail stores have dozens of gray-bulb cameras poking up everywhere, watching, watching.

Unfortunately, McDonald said, there are far more cameras than there are store employees to watch all the screens.

Sometimes, store employees discover a theft when they find an empty box or an empty spot on a shelf. So they go to the video recordings and backtrack from there. Not easy.

But on the plus side, McDonald said: Security cameras, even in just the past couple of years, have multiplied in Wichita by the thousands.

And the quality of images has vastly improved.

His detectives still disappoint some businesspeople, who give the police great images and ask for an arrest. “But when we look at it, the image is sometimes 16,000 feet away, so it might as well be Bigfoot we’re looking at,” McDonald said.

But overall, the cameras are a help to police and a deterrent to crime. Even the many dummy cameras that exist now deter people, he said.

“There are so many cameras, and the thieves know there are only so many times that you can walk into the same place wearing a hood and sunglasses,” he said. “People catch on.”

McDonald says the cameras have given new advantages to his larceny detectives, to the narcotics detectives he used to work with and to street patrol officers.

Not many years ago, he said, “it was a surprise to come to a house where there were security cameras. Now it is not a surprise at all.

“They are everywhere.”

Behind dwindling privacy

One reason we are losing our privacy is that stealth technology got a lot cheaper and a lot better, Goad said. Another reason is that theft has always been much worse than police statistics show, Goad said.

He works with many local employers. They often don’t report theft, he said.

Sometimes that’s because the thieves are employees and the employers want to handle it internally. Or sometimes they decide reporting a theft is not worth the trouble.

“And that’s why so many people want to get cameras now,” Goad said.

It’s sometimes simple to catch a thief, he said. Do you suspect money is going missing from your sales? One move you could make would be to put a stealth camera where the employees count the money and review the video the next day.

You can sometimes use technology other than cameras to keep tabs, he said.

For example, Goad said, if your employees get access to your building using plastic card keys, that means you as the employer probably have computer access to the record produced automatically showing when those cards are used to determine when employees are coming into the building.

If your business is closed on Sunday, how come some employees come in on a Sunday and stay only 10 minutes?

Stuff just disappears from shelves, he said.

Intrusive government

One recent violator caught on camera was Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita, the chairman of the federal and state affairs committee of the Kansas House of Representatives.

About two months ago, Brunk got a letter in the mail after he visited his son in the Denver area.

“It had a photo of my car license plate. It had a photo showing, very clearly, an image of me driving my car.

“And it asked for money. A lot of money actually.”

He was driving at 44 mph, in a 35 mph zone. His fine: $100.

He paid the fine, he said, even though they caught him by using a robotic traffic camera.

Government surveillance is a big worry in general, Brunk said. “Spying on our own people. An intrusive government,” he said.

In the past legislative session, some legislators introduced bills that seek to ban drones from, among other things, flying over private property.

Brunk didn’t approve of that legislation.

People have rights, he said. Farmers and ranchers will use drones to watch over their cattle and scout for insects eating crops, he said. The news media ought to have the right to use drones to photograph images. Realtors like himself will probably find a use for drones to sell properties, he said.

Law enforcement is already using cameras to catch criminals.

Across the nation, police have begun capturing and storing images of license plates everywhere, and recording also their locations.

No one should think crime-solving by government surveillance is always a bad idea, Brunk said.

“If you see a light aircraft hovering over Interstate 70, and you’re driving at 110 miles per hour, you shouldn’t be surprised if they take your picture,” he said.

But he agrees that privacy has diminished. And he says we already have enough intrusive government. He’s thinking about raising this issue, if he is re-elected, with the federal and state affairs committee in Topeka next session. It is a question of balancing freedoms, he said.

“Invasiveness of government, or invasiveness of individuals who want to take matters into their own hands, right up to your bedroom window – we have struggled with that question,” he said. “When we take it up, you may find that some very liberal and some very conservative-minded people are going to find themselves in the same boat about this. Ideologically, this problem cuts across a lot of lines.”

In the meantime, he suggests that losing our privacy means at least one thing:

“Always act uprightly.”

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @roywenzl.

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