Chinese tech giants are developing apps to alert women to spycams

Watching closely.
Watching closely.
Image: REUTERS/ David Gray
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Peeping toms can be a headache for women everywhere in the world. But the problem seems especially severe in China, where the spy camera industry encompasses “services” that start with installation and run to sales of videos of those surveilled. In some parts of China, as little as 20 yuan ($2.84) can buy a video (link in Chinese) secretly shot up a woman’s skirt. Meanwhile, a hotel manager in Zhengzhou in central China, claimed that more than 80% (link in Chinese) of hotel rooms in the city were fitted with  spy cameras.

Now, two Chinese tech giants have stepped forward to help deal with the issue. Baidu, the country’s largest search engine, and Qihoo 360, a cybersecurity firm, have each rolled out mobile phone features that can help users spot hidden cameras. On Oct. 28, Qihoo added the new feature to its popular “360 Phone Guardian” mobile app, and a day later, Baidu announced that a similar feature was available on “Baidu Phone Guardian.”

Both features are based on similar technology. Phones need to be connected to wifi in order for the new functions on the Guardian apps to scan the venue’s cameras and check for any hidden ones. Most hidden cameras are controlled remotely and so they need to be connected to the internet. By analyzing the way in which each camera connects to the internet and transmits data, the apps can spot the hidden ones, according to statements from Qihoo and Baidu (links in Chinese.)

Of course, scanning suspicious devices is not the only way to spot hidden cameras. Others include turning off all the lights in a room and using the flashlight on your mobile phone to pick up the reflection of a hidden camera lens. And the simplest, most low-tech solution is to cover up suspicious-looking objects that might conceal a camera.

Ironically, both Baidu and Qihoo have themselves been accused of breaching users’ privacy in the past. In 2017, Qihoo shut down its live-streaming platform Shuidi Zhibo, which was connected to its surveillance cameras in private housing as well as in public places. The company was accused of allowing some of the footage to be live-streamed without the knowledge of the people who had been filmed. Baidu was sued by a consumer protection group last year because two of its apps had allegedly gained access to users’ private information such as their list of contacts.

The launch of the new features comes amid growing awareness in China of the issue of digital privacy. Face-swapping app Zao, which allows users to pretend they had a starring role in a blockbuster film, was once China’s most downloaded app. But after sparking concerns that users’ photos could be used for other purposes without their authorization, Chinese regulators told the company to rectify the app.