Ille­gal espio­na­ge devices: a risk for manu­fac­tu­r­ers and vendors?

The Data Pro­tec­tion Com­mis­sio­ner for the Sta­te of Mecklenburg-Lower Pome­ra­nia poin­ted out in a recent press release that hid­den came­ra vide­os are against the law and war­ned that ope­ra­ting mini­ca­me­ras is con­tra­ry to data pro­tec­tion law.

The occa­si­on for the press release was an unfort­u­na­te inci­dent at the “Monis Rache” fes­ti­val in the Coun­ty of Greifs­wald in Lower Pome­ra­nia in which a man hid came­ras in the bath­room and film­ed fema­le fes­ti­val atten­de­es on the toi­let. He then dis­tri­bu­ted the films on online por­no­gra­phy plat­forms, repor­ted­ly ear­ning almost € 8,000.

But con­tra­ry to what one might pre­su­me from the Sta­te Data Pro­tec­tion Com­mis­sio­ner’s press release, the legal situa­ti­on sur­roun­ding hid­den spy came­ra vide­os and mini­ca­me­ras is com­pli­ca­ted, and the­re could be legal reper­cus­sions for manu­fac­tu­r­ers and ven­dors as well.

The legal situa­ti­on for the actu­al video recor­dings is rela­tively simp­le: tho­se who make spy came­ra vide­os typi­cal­ly meet the ele­ments of § 201a of the Cri­mi­nal Code, which pena­li­zes tho­se who inva­de others’ per­so­nal space by recor­ding images with a pri­son sen­tence of up to two years or a mone­ta­ry fine. The recor­ding equip­ment and images may also be sei­zed, along with the pro­fits ear­ned from such acti­vi­ty, in accordance with §§ 201a(5) Sen­tence 1 in con­junc­tion with § 73(1) of the Cri­mi­nal Code. The publi­ca­ti­on of such mate­ri­als on por­no­gra­phic por­tals may also repre­sent a vio­la­ti­on of § 184 of the Cri­mi­nal Code (dis­se­mi­na­ti­on of por­no­gra­phic mate­ri­als) and § 33 of the Art Copy­right Act.

But the legal situa­ti­on with regard to the mini­ca­me­ras them­sel­ves is far more com­plex. Mini­ca­me­ras may be con­side­red ille­gal trans­mit­ters in accordance with § 90 of the Tele­com­mu­ni­ca­ti­ons Act and the­r­e­fo­re ille­gal, but this only the case if they are con­cea­led in such a way as to make them par­ti­cu­lar­ly sui­ta­ble for secret­ly recor­ding images. The mere size of the came­ras is not enough to make them ille­gal in accordance with § 90 of the Tele­com­mu­ni­ca­ti­ons Act; rather, they would have to be con­cea­led within an ever­y­day object, such as a watch, alarm clock or smo­ke detec­tor. If the devices qua­li­fy as ille­gal trans­mit­ters, it would be unlawful to pos­sess, manu­fac­tu­re or dis­tri­bu­te them in Ger­ma­ny and the com­pe­tent aut­ho­ri­ty, the Fede­ral Net­work Agen­cy, may initia­te admi­nis­tra­ti­ve pro­cee­dings to enforce this pro­hi­bi­ti­on. This could affect com­mer­cial manu­fac­tu­r­ers and ven­dors of such devices, and may even cau­se the mar­ket to col­lap­se over­night, as in the case of the “My fri­end Cayla” doll, which was ban­ned in accordance with § 90 of the Tele­com­mu­ni­ca­ti­ons Act. The­re is also the thre­at of recour­se claims from cus­to­mers, as the devices in ques­ti­on would have to be des­troy­ed. In addi­ti­on to the con­se­quen­ces in admi­nis­tra­ti­ve law, a vio­la­ti­on of § 90 of the Tele­com­mu­ni­ca­ti­ons Act may also con­sti­tu­te a cri­mi­nal offen­se, car­ry­ing a pri­son sen­tence of up to two years or a mone­ta­ry fine in accordance with § 148(1) No. 2 of the Tele­com­mu­ni­ca­ti­ons Act.

As long as mini­ca­me­ras are not con­cea­led, they may be manu­fac­tu­red, sold and ope­ra­ted in Ger­ma­ny. Howe­ver, in addi­ti­on to the pro­vi­si­ons of cri­mi­nal law explai­ned abo­ve, other laws would also need to be taken into account, such as pro­vi­si­ons of data pro­tec­tion law. In this con­text, it is inte­res­t­ing that the Ger­man Data Pro­tec­tion Con­fe­ren­ce’s Short Paper on video sur­veil­lan­ce in accordance with the GDPR (PDF) defi­nes no requi­re­ments with regard to came­ra size.

In light of this situa­ti­on, tho­se who manu­fac­tu­re or sell devices which may be affec­ted by this pro­hi­bi­ti­on, but also com­pa­nies which use mini­ca­me­ras, e.g. to moni­tor sus­pi­cious employees, would be well-advised to careful­ly exami­ne the legal frame­work for their activities.

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