published Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

Spycam found in downtown Chattanooga Billiard Club's bathroom

  • photo
    A patron reported finding this device in the men’s restroom of the Chattanooga Billiard Club downtown. The miniature camera was turned in to police, who say they are investigating.
    Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

It looks like something from a spy movie. But you don't have to be a movie star or a secret agent to use one. And you don't have to be suspected of a crime to be monitored by one.

The day after Johns Hopkins Health System in Baltimore agreed to pay a $190 million settlement to patients who were treated by a gynecologist wearing a camera disguised as a pen around his neck, the shocking reality of intrusive, covert cameras surfaced Tuesday in Chattanooga.

Police are investigating a small, pen-shaped device containing a tiny camera and memory drive that a local man turned in to them Sunday night after his friend discovered it in the bathroom at the Chattanooga Billiard Club downtown.

Representatives at the business could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Self-described computer-junkie Josh Neelands, 27, said the device his friend found contained video footage from several locations where men -- and in at least one case a child -- were using the bathroom.

Neelands said his friend thought the device was an electronic cigarette when he picked it up in the CBC bathroom July 15.

But Robert McCrie, a professor of security management at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said anyone can get such tiny, camouflaged cameras for $50-$250.

"They are almost ubiquitous right now. Acquiring them is quite easy," McCrie said. "There are spy stores. There are conventions where spy-type paraphernalia can be purchased and there is an online market, totally legitimate, for purchasing such tiny cameras."

If the person who placed the camera in Chattanooga is caught, he could face misdemeanor charges for violation of privacy, as well as civil action by people whose images were captured, McCrie said.

But there are legitimate uses for concealed cameras, so long as they do not violate the expectation of privacy found in places like private homes, offices, medical facilities and bathrooms.

Among the acceptable instances are when property repeatedly disappears or if a family member wants to monitor the care that a child or elderly person is receiving, McCrie said.

"In situations like that, it is moral and ethical to have a hidden camera in a semi-public place to capture images," he said.

Neelands said he would encourage police to use a disk recovery tool to see if any deleted files can be obtained to give more clues about who the culprit is or additional places where the camera may have been set up.

"There's ways to do that and I would have done that if I wasn't so creeped out by it," Neelands said.

The technology, McCrie said, is smaller, cheaper and higher quality than it ever has been.

"It's James Bond in your own house or your own office," he said.

Or in the bathroom.

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731.

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