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A visitor watches a promotion video at the China International Big Data Industry Expo 2021 in Guiyang, in southwest China’s Guizhou province. Photo: Xinhua

China’s data privacy: Country to crack down on spy cameras as it tightens enforcement of digital protections laws

  • Regulators have launched a three-month campaign to crack down on the underground market for spy cameras and hidden-camera videos
  • On social networks, tutorials can be purchased on how to gain access to home security camera feeds

Social and e-commerce platforms in China will face “severe” punishment if they fail to purge spy camera tutorials, hidden-camera videos and cheap, easily-compromised cameras from their platforms amid the central government’s push to tighten enforcement of privacy laws.

In a joint announcement on Friday, the Cyberspace Administration of China, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the Public Security Bureau and the State Administration for Market Regulation launched a three-month campaign to crack down on the huge underground market for spy cameras and hidden-camera videos.

Spy cameras, which are easily hidden and come with built-in memory and wifi connections, have become widely available in China and have been found in hotel rooms, public bathrooms and even private homes.

On social networks, tutorials can be purchased on how to gain access to home security camera feeds, and private chat groups exist where participants can exchange videos of residents’ most intimate and private moments.

A local newspaper in eastern Shandong province recently reported that for just 188 yuan (US$29), an undercover reporter was able to access live camera feeds from 30 homes at once. The seller even gave them an option to view hotel rooms, dressing rooms, and day spas for a slightly higher price.

Regulators are now demanding that online platforms and camera makers do their part in addressing these blatant privacy violations. Social networks and online forums must also clean up hacking tutorials, exploitation tools as well as the trading of secretly recorded videos, according to the statement from regulators.

Camera makers and video surveillance service providers are required to improve their product’s security protection. Meanwhile, e-commerce platforms need to purge and remove “counterfeit and poorly made” cameras, the joint statement said.

However, what constitutes a “poorly made” camera was not defined. On Monday, tiny cameras could still be found on China’s biggest e-commerce platforms including Taobao Marketplace, and Pinduoduo, mostly billed as security surveillance tools.

Internet firms who fail to carry out these rectifications will be “severely punished” according to laws and regulations, the regulators said in the notice.

Taobao operator Alibaba Group Holding, the owner of the South China Morning Post, and Pinduoduo did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday, which is a public holiday in China.

The clean-up campaign comes hot on the heels of the release of China’s Data Security Law, important new national legislation that offers a legal framework for the governance of data activities in China’s digital economy.

It lays out broad guidelines for establishing a data trading market, and puts forward hefty fines for unauthorised transfers of data to overseas entities and for companies that fail to protect their data.

Under the new law, which goes into effect on September 1, organisations and individuals that engage in data processing activities but fail to fulfil their data security protection obligations face a fine of up to 500,000 yuan, with fines of up to 2 million yuan for bigger data leaks.

But the sweeping law only sets a broad framework for data governance, lawyers say, and more corresponding regulations still need to be in place for actual implementation.

“The law calls on top government agencies to formulate national data security strategies, policies and coordinate a comprehensive data governance system across regions and industry departments,” Alex Roberts, counsel for technology, media and telecommunications at global law firm Linklaters, said last week.

“However, organisations will need to wait for implementation rules to understand what this means in practice.”