Technology aids 'peeping Toms,' makes trauma worse for victims

How is technology changing the age-old crime of voyeurism?

Emma Shulevitz said she wonders whether she's being watched whenever she uses a public restroom.

The 28-year-old Rockville resident was among the women who used a changing room at the National Capital Mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath in Washington, D.C., where Rabbi Barry Freundel admitted last month to secretly recording women with a hidden camera.

Shulevitz said she was shocked when she first learned of the allegations against Freundel.

"Now, I think it could happen anywhere," said Shulevitz, who is a plaintiff in a civil lawsuit. The suit names the National Capital Mikvah and the Rabbinical Council of America, of which Freundel was a leader, among others.

As tiny, hidden cameras have become more readily available, lawyers and victim advocates say crimes of voyeurism have become easier to commit — and are potentially more damaging to victims like Shulevitz, who fear the recorded videos and images of them can be posted online or disseminated to others.

"Voyeurism has always existed, but that was kind of a discreet incident of invasion of privacy," said Lisae Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "Because of the Internet, because of video, people's privacy is being invaded over and over and over again — and even if that's not happening, it's always a person's fear that's not in their control."

Though no national statistics tracking video voyeurism crimes are available, the Baltimore area has seen several recent high-profile cases.

Kyle Muehlhauser, who was president of The Rams Head Group, is accused of secretly taping women in the bathroom of his company's restaurant in Savage. He is awaiting an April 23 court appearance.

Freundel, who taught at Towson University before resigning in February, pleaded guilty to 52 counts of voyeurism in D.C. Superior Court that month.

And Dr. Nikita Levy, an obstetrician/gynecologist with Johns Hopkins Community Physicians, was accused of secretly photographing or filming patients in his office. Levy killed himself during an investigation.

"All you have to do is look at your own phone and see how rapidly the technology has evolved," said Mia Fernandez, executive director of the Washington-based National Center for Victims of Crime. "The use of a mini-cam has become easier and less expensive."

It's also made the crime possible in many settings. Brittany Oliver, site leader for the organization Hollaback! Bmore, which works to end sexual street harassment, has heard reports from women who believed they were recorded with cellphones while using public transportation in the region.

Oliver called video voyeurism a form of stalking and nonverbal harassment. She emphasized that the crime of voyeurism has long existed, but said technology has made the crime easier for perpetrators.

"It brings new challenges to the idea of personal privacy and what it means to be safe," Oliver said.

In Maryland and many other states, voyeurism is a misdemeanor. Some states carry heftier penalties when the victim is a minor or when they are recorded or photographed, according to research by the National District Attorneys Association.

For each count Freundel pleaded guilty to in Washington, he faces up to a year in jail and up to a $2,500 fine.

In court documents related to Freundel's criminal case, authorities said a search of the rabbi's Towson University office turned up items including a camera hidden in a car charger and an empty box for a car-key "microcamera."

"It's much easier to get away with voyeurism and it's more tempting to someone who has the inclination to do it," said Steven J. Kelly, a Baltimore attorney representing some of the victims in the Freundel civil case, including Shulevitz. "Within the past five years, there's been a huge explosion in the amount of public availability and demand for this type of product."

According to the lawsuit, Shulevitz was visiting the mikvah and had started to place a water bottle on the sink counter in a changing room, when Freundel — who accompanied her into the room — "sternly warned not to disturb the clock-radio."

An attorney for Freundel did not return requests for comment.

The Baltimore Sun typically does not identify alleged victims of sexual crimes, but Shulevitz has spoken publicly about the case and says she wants to be a voice for victims.

Although there is no evidence that Freundel posted the recordings online, Shulevitz said she feared that attorneys and authorities would be able to see images of her while they were working on the case.

Shulevitz said she now gets anxious when she's near the synagogue where the mikvah is located, and she thinks about being recorded whenever she is in a public restroom.

"I'm just trying to not do anything that I would be embarrassed to do," she said.

A victim of voyeurism may develop a stress disorder or hypervigilant behavior as a result of the invasion of privacy, said Dr. Sharon Moore, a psychiatrist with the Trauma Disorders Program at Sheppard Pratt Health System.

For the voyeur, meanwhile, the behavior is "self-reinforcing," a behavior that that the person is likely to repeat, Moore said.

"It's something that makes people feel good, either from the power or the rush," she said.

Institutions and businesses with public restrooms need to take more precautions to ensure that facilities aren't bugged, said attorney Allen J. Lowe, who is representing women in a case against the University of Delaware, where a graduate student was accused of secretly recording women in bathrooms.

"As you can see with what's going on just with drones, the ability to photograph people when they are unaware is becoming a common occurrence every day," Lowe said.

Hidden cameras are so commonplace now that people can buy technology to detect them, said Todd Morris, CEO of BrickHouse Security, a New York-based company that offers a variety of security and surveillance products.

His company sells a mini hidden-camera detector and other "counter surveillance" products. When it was introduced in 2007, the detector cost about $400. Today, the price has gone down to $99.95.

The detector is marketed online as a convenient device that women can throw into their purse to check dressing rooms and other public places.

"It is unfortunately a common occurrence," Morris said of hidden cameras being used inappropriately. "There are a lot of people who are concerned."

Kelly, of the Baltimore law firm, said it's important to remember that voyeurs make up "a very small percentage of our society."

"The chances of this happening to any one person are still low," he said. "But that doesn't make it easier" for victims.

Shulevitz said although the experience was difficult, she has grown from it. She hopes the lawsuit gives voice to other women.

"This is our opportunity to make change and to fight back," she said.

alisonk@baltsun.com

twitter.com/aliknez

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