Peeping Toms are on the rise

The recent row over the alleged leak of private videos of girl students of Chandigarh University, Mohali, on internet has brought home the vulnerability of women to digital voyeurism, writes Dr. Sangita Laha

It was shocking to see a massive protest by students of Chandigarh University, located in Mohali, Punjab, in recent days. The news made headlines on several TV Channels. The reports covered the protest which erupted after rumours of objectionable videos of inmates of girls hostel on the campus being leaked online started doing the rounds. Surely, it left many of us aghast. The incident stirred the MMS controversies again putting a question mark over the safety and security of young girls/women staying in hostels either for pursuing further studies or eking out a living in the big cities. The earlier Delhi Public School MMS scandal had brought a whole new layer of notoriety to the culture of sensual pleasures.

Such incidents occur quite often. To look back, The Economic Times broke news on April  1, that the Mumbai Police has filed a charge sheet against well-known Bollywood choreographer in a sexual harassment case dating back to 2020. The choreographer is known for his work in blockbuster films and was charged with sexual harassment, stalking and voyeurism.

In 2015, the case of Union minister Smriti Irani finding a CCTV camera at Goa’s Fab India store brought back the focus on digital voyeurism. Being a Union minister, her case received a lot of media attention. The incident happened a few days after a woman found a mobile phone strapped to a changing room door of a Van Heusen store in Lajpat Nagar’s Central market in Delhi, a popular shopping hub.

One of the first cases of digital voyeurism was reported in Pune in 2003 when a peon in an establishment at Sahakar Nagar installed a web camera in a changing room. In 2005, a landowner was arrested for filming women tenants. In 2007, two MMS clips from the changing rooms of a renowned departmental store in Kolkata started making the rounds. In one, a girl was shown changing clothes while in the other a couple was shown having sex. A year later, a shop assistant was found filming women in a garment store from below the trial room door in Kolkata. Usually, the person committing voyeurism is called a ‘voyeur’ or ‘peeping tom’. Though voyeurism doesn’t harm any person physically but leaves the victim with mental trauma and pressure. It torments a woman, invading her right to privacy.

There are many such incidents. Alfred Hitchcock alludes to the theme of voyeurism in his film ‘Rear Window,’ and emphasised the tendency for human beings to watch others for their own amusement. Rear Window examines how voyeurism can be a possible form of entertainment for an individual. Jeff is an active voyeur by profession, a photographer, making him naturally inclined towards watching people. A case of voyeurism could arise under two circumstances; one, a person actually sees someone spying, and two, they suspect that they are being spied on.

As per the statistics, about 42% of college students without any previous criminal background have engaged in voyeuristic acts as they have high-tech gadgets and mobile devices. This has taken voyeurism to new heights in India. Every new phone available in the market today comes with a minimum of 5 megapixel camera, and access to superfast internet. About 80 percent of the youth have access to a smart-phone with these basic features. Besides, several types of spy-cameras such as pen cameras and button cameras are available at affordable prices.

What is voyeurism?

Voyeurism is an act of spying on people who are engaged in private activities like undressing, showering, or any other action which is of a private nature. A person may engage in an act of voyeurism simply by using his/her naked eyes, or by using cameras or binoculars. In other words….peeping through when the victim is unaware that his/her private acts are being watched or captured by someone.

What does the law say?

The Criminal Law Amendment Act, 2013 inserted Section 354-C into the Indian Penal Code, criminalizing voyeurism. Sending obscene material (photos, pictures, films, messages) to a woman through social media is an act of sexual harassment under the IPC. Showing or sending a woman pornographic or sexually explicit material without her consent is a form of sexual harassment under Section 354-A IPC. The punishment for this offence can range from 3 years and a fine or both. But, in almost all the cases, the voyeur does not interact directly with the subject of his interest, who is often unaware of being observed. This reduces the chance of the incident being reported. Hence, the voyeur goes scot free. Taking advantage of the situation, he coerces the victim to meet his demand.

The concept of ‘Voyeurism’ started with the Information Technology Act 2000. With the incorporation of provisions like sections 66E, Sec 67, Sec 67A and Sec 79, the act covers the prohibition of all activities like transmitting, recording, capturing, recording of obscenity, and capturing a sexually explicit act. The separate section has been introduced in the IT Act, 2000 by Information Technology Amendment Act, 2008 by the influence of Section 1801 of Video Voyeurism Prevention Act of 2004, a Federal Law of USA. It strengthened the laws against voyeurism in India. Section 66E of IT Act, 2008 recognizes the right to protect the human body from unreasonable and obscene intrusion by video technology and adequately protects the individual privacy from the crime of video voyeurism which destroys personal privacy and dignity by secretly videotaping or photographing unsuspecting individuals. Section 67A of the IT Act states that if material which is published online is sexually explicit; the person can be imprisoned for 5 years and is liable to pay a fine of up to Rs 10 lakh. The police say regardless of whether the victim has a proof or not, a complaint should be filed.

Combating voyeurism

Combating voyeurism is not an easy task, and it cannot happen overnight by merely passing laws with punitive measures. Agencies must be set up by the government to run a periodic check on restaurants, hotels, clothing stores, malls, and other places which are open to public. Such places should be checked routinely for breaches in privacy. If these are found to be faulty in ensuring such protection, then heavy fines and other penalties should be imposed on them. This would force the hands of the store keepers or managers into taking effective measures in ensuring privacy protection in their stores.

(The author is an Associate Professor of National University of Study & Research in Law)