She first became suspicious when her boss, a married man who had previously made romantic advances towards her, made an uncanny comment about a particular clock he had gifted her. He would take the clock back if she did not want it, he told her, soon after she had shifted the clock’s position in her bedroom.
After looking the clock up online, she discovered to her horror that it was in fact a discreet spy cam that had been streaming footage of her bedroom to her boss’ phone for more than a month. “Is that the thing you stayed up all night to Google?” he asked when she confronted him about the clock.
The incident involving a South Korean woman is one of many horror stories documented in a new 105-page report published this week on the insidious but enduring problem of digital sex crimes in South Korea.
Drawing from 38 interviews, including those with survivors, government officials and activists, as well as an online survey involving 554 respondents, the report titled “My Life is Not Your Porn: Digital Sex Crimes in South Korea” provides chilling personal accounts of what the U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) calls “crimes involving non-consensual intimate images.”
According to the findings, the number of sex crime prosecutions in South Korea involving illegal filming has spiked between 2008 and 2017, from 585 cases to a stunning 6,615. However, there are also likely many more cases that have gone unreported.
After the initial shock of discovering the spy cam clock, the South Korean woman said she had to endure a grueling legal process where she struggled to receive updates and information about her case. Her perpetrator was sentenced to 10 months in prison, but she was still grappling with the trauma a year after the initial discovery.
“What happened took place in my own room—so sometimes, in regular life, in my own room, I feel terrified without reason,” she told HRW in an interview in February 2020.
In 2018, another woman only found out that a stranger had filmed her secretly from her house window when police came knocking on her door, she told HRW. By then, he had already been filming her for two weeks. Even after moving to a new house, she claimed that she still felt paranoid at home and in public places, plagued by the constant fear that someone was watching her secretly.
Meanwhile, the director of a company that detects spy cams told HRW about one client who was so disturbed after being secretly filmed at home that she started living inside a tent in her own house.
The trauma of being filmed unknowingly has caused many survivors of digital sex crimes to contemplate suicide, and, in some cases, follow through with it, HRW said.
In September 2019, three months before her wedding, a hospital lab technician died by suicide after learning that she had been secretly filmed by a colleague in a changing room at her workplace. Her perpetrator was sentenced to 10 months in prison, a sentence her father told HRW was way too short.
Critics have linked lighter sentences to what they say is a strong culture of female objectification and victim-blaming. Last year, an infamous case involving the so-called Nth Room cyber sex ring saw footage of sexual violence circulated across a network of online chat rooms containing at least 260,000 members.
There are also legal gaps as authorities try to catch up with changing technology, HRW said. For example, the country’s Sex Crimes Act states that only non-consensual photos and videos of someone that “may cause sexual stimulus or humiliation” are criminalized. This means that non-consensual photos taken of someone who isn’t nude, for example, may not constitute a sex crime.
These legislative gaps are often accompanied by sluggish law enforcement, according to the report.
When a university student discovered intimate photos of women that seemed to have been taken without their consent—including her own—in her then-boyfriend’s possession, the authorities offered her little help, she told HRW. The police detective and lawyer who were supposed to assist her instead encouraged her to drop the allegations, warning that her ex-boyfriend could prosecute her for defamation and for accessing his personal files.
Her ex-boyfriend was eventually fined 3 million won ($2,650) though according to the survivor, the case did not seem to have impacted his social life.
HRW is urging South Korean authorities to re-examine sentencing guidelines for digital sex crimes, take steps to better protect survivors’ privacy, and incorporate discussions of consent and gender-based violence into sexuality education.
In recent years, the South Korean government has promised to step up efforts to address the burgeoning problem of digital sex crimes. Established in 2018, the Digital Sex Crime Victim Support Center was one such attempt. Seen by some as a step in the right direction, according to HRW, it currently lacks the capacity to meet nationwide demand and struggles with organizational difficulties.
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