June 22, 2024

Amazon may be responsible, at least partly, for a man spying on an underage girl using a clothes hook hidden camera, a US judge ruled less than two weeks ago. You’d think the first thing the retail giant would do is pull down any and all such listings—but no.

The original listing for the camera referred to in the ongoing case is no longer online, but the BBC found several identical products on Amazon’s UK website. Quartz independently verified at least three listings of the sort on Amazon.co.uk and at least one on Amazon.com. No such results showed up for “clothes hook camera” on Amazon.co.in.

What’s more, the Seattle-based e-commerce titan lets vendors sell many more everyday items doubling as hidden cameras, such as alarm clocks, wall chargers, USB chargers, car keys, photo frames, and smoke alarms. Potential uses in the product descriptions include identifying an intruder, monitoring pets and kids, and catching a cheating partner.

A brief recap: Amazon’s clothes hook spy camera lawsuit

An aspiring actress from Brazil who visited West Virginia as an exchange student in 2021 alleges she was surreptitiously filmed by her host, Darrel Wells, using an “embedded pinhole camera” disguised as a “mountable hook.” At the time, she was a minor, according to her March 2023 complaint.

The seller of the camera, identified as John Doe, participated in the Fulfillment by Amazon program even though the product shouldn’t have passed several checks and balances, the legal filing claims.

In late March, Amazon filed a motion to dismiss the case. But on Nov. 30, US district judge Robert Chambers denied its bid, saying Amazon didn’t just serve as a passive marketplace. Chambers argued that the company actively added to the harm by…

🕵️ failing to properly inspect the camera three times, “including an inspection by Amazon’s Product Safety team tasked with preventing the type of harm alleged here,”

✍️ exercising control over the camera’s product description, “including over the photographs encouraging using the camera in a private bathroom as a towel hook” and a graphic with text that read, “It won’t attract attention,”

📣 and promoting the camera despite knowing “hidden cameras were used to spy on individuals in private spaces.”

“Amazon cannot claim surprise when a consumer uses the camera that way,” Chambers said, paving the way for discovery in the case and possibly even a trial.

Chambers cited several precedents—Snapchat’s speed filter encouraging rash driving, Juul targeting minors via “social media, young attractive models, websites and networks frequented by teens,” and “directly in school[s], and Soldier of Fortune magazine allowing a for-hire mercenary to advertise himself—where “when a seller promotes a product suggesting a particular use, harms that result from that suggested use are foreseeable.”

The court also said it doesn’t matter if there were “legal uses” of the product listed alongside the clandestine ones.

The judge let stand the plaintiff’s claims of negligence, product liability, torts of outrage (intentional infliction of emotional distress), and civil conspiracy, but dismissed a racketeering claim.

Quotable: Are all hidden cameras listed on Amazon illegal?

“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. At the same time, the court’s analysis could indicate that all surreptitious hook cameras are categorically illegal to sell, even when buyers plan to use it 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.”

—Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman in a Dec. 3 blog post about the case

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