Amazon on the hook for predictably revolting use of concealed clothes hook spy cam
Judge finds plaintiff's claim – that Amazon knew about illicit usage – credible enough for case to proceed
Two years ago, a Brazilian minor came to the US as an exchange student in the US and stayed in a West Virginia home in which her host had placed a spy camera bought on Amazon.com.
The minor – said to have been an "aspiring actress" in an amended legal complaint [PDF] filed earlier this year against e-commerce giant Amazon – found that her host "had been using Amazon's spy camera to surreptitiously record her in her private bathroom."
The plaintiff's lawsuit, which last week largely survived Amazon's motion to dismiss the case, seeks to hold the online store liable for selling a product that was advertised for potentially illicit uses and was allegedly flagged to its Product Safety team.
The "Hidden Clothes Hook Camera" – a covert camera concealed in a clothes hook – was accessible on Amazon's website until recently. It was mentioned by Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman, who wrote about the case on Sunday.
The removed listing for the hook-cam, preserved in the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine, is one of many hidden cameras offered for sale on Amazon – most of which promote applications like surveilling home child care workers and security monitoring.
The lawsuit argues that Amazon's Product Safety team was aware the clothes hook camera was intended for unlawful purposes. And to support that claim, it cites marketing that says the hidden camera "'won't attract attention' from the victim, who would presumably hang a towel to be used in drying her undressed body."
"The intended use of this spy camera as explicitly portrayed in Amazon's online retail store – eg as a towel hook in a bathroom to secretly record undressed individuals without their consent – is a federal felony and also a crime under West Virginia law," the amended complaint states.
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Further, it's claimed Amazon facilitates such illegal usage by accepting keyword searches like "bathroom spy camera" that indicate unlawful intent.
In late March, Amazon filed a motion to dismiss the case on various grounds.
Last week, the judge hearing the case found most of the online retailer's arguments wanting, meaning the case will proceed to discovery and possibly trial. West Virginia District Court judge Robert Chambers let stand four claims – negligence, product liability, torts of outrage (intentional infliction of emotional distress), and civil conspiracy – but dismissed a racketeering claim.
"I know there can be good reasons why someone deploys an in-home surveillance camera, but I’m less clear on the appropriate use cases for a surreptitious hook camera," professor Goldman wrote in his analysis of the judge's order [PDF] rejecting most of Amazon's arguments.
"The court’s analysis could indicate that all surreptitious hook cameras are categorically illegal to sell, even when buyers plan to use them completely legally. That makes this a dangerous ruling for the spycam industry and for Amazon. At the same time, I’m curious to hear more about what Amazon’s Product Safety team thought when it evaluated this item."
Amazon, which may yet prevail as the case progresses, did not respond to a request for comment. ®