In one of its last moves of the year, Congress passed a bill that would levy heavy fines and prison time for anyone who sneaks photos or videos of people in various stages of undress, a problem lawmakers and activists called the new frontier of stalking.
While camera phone voyeurism probably won't be high on the list of federal crimes the FBI and other federal agencies pursue, "at least in theory there is now federal protection available so people can't unknowingly have their private parts photographed, downloaded and transmitted around the world," said Hanan B. Kolko, a New York civil liberties lawyer.
The bill, which President Bush is expected to sign, would make it a crime to videotape or photograph the naked or underwear-covered private parts of a person without consent when the person has a reasonable expectation of privacy. Conviction could lead to a fine of not more than $100,000 or imprisonment for up to one year, or both.
The measure got voice vote approval in both chambers of Congress — the House on Sept. 21 and the Senate on Tuesday.
The legislation would apply only in federal jurisdictions, such as federal buildings, national parks or military bases, but it carves out exceptions for law enforcement, intelligence and prison work.
The use of "nanny cams" and other hidden recording devices like pinhole cameras have been favorites of peeping Toms for years, lawmakers say. But the proliferation of tiny cellular telephones that can take pictures silently and shoot video has taken the crime out of bedrooms and bathrooms and into public places such as grocery stores, sidewalks and restaurants.
Some people then transfer the photos to Internet sites featuring what are called "upskirting" and "downblousing," lawmakers said.
While secretly photographing people in a compromising position is against the law in some states — Florida and South Dakota instituted cameraphone voyeurism laws in July, for example — "what this does is set a national standard," Kolko said.
"It's pretty narrowly crafted, and protects those parts of a person's body that they wouldn't want to be photographed or videotaped, and especially now that photography and video images can be downloaded and transmitted across the Internet within seconds around the world, it gives people protection from worldwide exposure without their consent," he said.
Although the bill limits the jurisdiction to federal property, that doesn't mean it won't be used.
Navy officials in the past few years have twice found small cameras hidden in women's rooms on ships heading out of Norfolk, Va.
In March, a female officer on the cruiser USS Monterey discovered a small wireless camera mounted in the changing area of the women's shower, and in November 2002, Navy officials charged a first-class petty officer on destroyer USS Briscoe with planting a miniature video camera in a women's room on that ship.
The Briscoe sailor pleaded guilty at a summary court-martial and had his rank reduced.
No one was charged in the Monterey incident because the camera was not yet operable and the ship was unable to establish criminal liability to the commanding officer's satisfaction, Charles Owens, spokesman for the Atlantic Fleet Naval Surface Force, said Thursday.
The United States isn't the only place cracking down on camera phones.
Saudi Arabia's highest religious authority barred the use of them for "spreading obscenity," while Australian police in November arrested a man for using his camera phone to take pictures of topless women sunning themselves on a Sydney beach. The phone was ordered destroyed and the man was fined $388 after pleading guilty.
"While it's a personal choice for female sunbathers to sunbake topless at a beach, this type of incident is clearly an invasion of one's privacy," a police spokesman said.
By Jesse J. Holland