In hidden corners across South Korea, tiny cameras are surreptitiously recording thousands of women when they are at their most vulnerable. Women have come to fear that cameras could be anywhere: perched inside the toilet bowl of a public restroom, disguised as a smoke detector in a shop’s fitting room, even rolled into a plastic bag at the lip of a trash can.
In Seoul, the capital, the proliferation of such hidden cameras — and the images they record, which often end up on pornographic websites — has often been described by reporters as an epidemic.
The city announced a crackdown Sunday, increasing the number of municipal employees assigned to search public bathrooms for hidden cameras to 8,000 in October from the 50 currently at work.
“It is to help citizens to feel safe when they use the public restrooms, free from concerns about spy cams,” the Seoul Metropolitan Government said in a statement.
The city has promised to inspect every one of its 20,554 public restrooms daily, an enormous undertaking that underscores the scope of the problem.
More than 30,000 cases of surreptitious filming have been reported nationally since 2013, according to police statistics.
Beginning next month, workers will check more than 20,000 public restrooms, in subways, parks, community centers, public gyms and underground commercial arcades. A thousand public restrooms have been placed on a “special monitoring” list, so that “female safety guards can do intensive checks,” according to the government.
Many women avoid going to public toilets alone, especially at night.
“I have never felt safe about going to public bathrooms ever since I was a college student,” Choi Yoon-jeong, 34, said. “I don’t think the new measures will be effective because finding and getting rid of the hidden cameras in the public restrooms will not solve the problem.”
The government’s previous attempts to locate hidden cameras have been lackluster. Currently, most toilets are inspected only once a month, and government inspectors have not discovered a single recording device in the past two years. Perpetrators, police said, often leave devices in place very briefly, perhaps for only 15 minutes at a time.
The “spy camera” crackdown comes amid mounting pressure on the government of President Moon Jae-in to take steps to better protect women.
Women’s rights rallies in Seoul in May and June drew thousands of protesters. Women said the hidden cameras are but one 21st-century form of harassment. They are also the subjects of so-called revenge porn, in which private photos are shared on the internet by jilted lovers, and “upskirting,” in which perpetrators use smartphones to photograph women’s crotches while in public places.
Many women are calling for harsher punishments for perpetrators, in addition to the removal of hidden cameras. Some said a boys’ club culture permeated the way police handled these crimes, often letting men go without being charged in cases where there was no physical violence.
“It is true that the investigations of our police authorities have been somewhat loose and that the punishments were not too severe even when such crimes were exposed,” Moon was reported as saying in May by the South Korean news agency Yonhap, adding that illicit recordings should be considered a “serious” and “malicious” crime.