Yesterday, on June 27, the Russian independent news channel TV Rain (“Dozhd”) published an investigative report on a network of hidden cameras operating in women's restrooms throughout Moscow. The footage circulates worldwide on the Internet, unbeknownst to most of the women who appear in these videos. One small group of women, led by Polina Anisimova and aided by an anonymous informant and his hacker companion, are now fighting back, trying to involve Russia's law enforcement. With the channel's permission, RuNet Echo presents a full translation of TV Rain's report below.
By Sonya Groysman and Ivan Pivsaev
Late in the evening on June 12, an unknown Vkontakte user with a blank profile and an avatar featuring the Russian rapper Pasha Tekhnik sent Polina Anisimova a photograph with her face and asked if it was her in the picture. She didn’t get around to reading the message until the middle of the night. When she finally looked, there she was in the image. There was her sweatshirt, her birthmark, and the mole on her face. But she couldn’t remember when or how the photo had been taken. She’s certainly never uploaded any such picture to the Internet. Now quite alarmed, Polina showed the message to her boyfriend.
At first, they decided it was some kind of bad joke or a new kind of online blackmail, and they started googling ways Vkontakte can be used to extort people.
After Polina confirmed that it really was her in the picture, the anonymous account sent her several more photos with a message telling her that he had “bad news” for her, explaining that she “had become a victim, just like his loved ones.” In the pictures, a young woman was urinating in a bathroom with white and brown tiles. Anisimova became even more confused, refusing to believe that this was her.
The anonymous account didn’t blackmail Polina or threaten her. He only warned that she, like many other young women, were the victims of a hidden-camera operation.
The strange photographs bore a watermark reading “Hidden Zone.” Searching for this phrase online, Polina and her boyfriend had no trouble finding on a torrent-tracking website hundreds of videos filmed using hidden cameras in women’s bathrooms. Before long, Anisimova recognized herself in one video’s preview image. Now there was no longer any doubt: it was her purse in the video, her blue jeans, and her bare buttocks. The only distinction was her long hair, which she’d cut short a full two years ago.
That’s how Polina learned that a pornographic video has existed on the Internet since at least 2014 featuring her, filmed without her knowledge.
The next day, Polina revealed the whole story on her Facebook page. “If I remained silent about this, this story could become grounds to blackmail me down the road, even though I didn’t do anything, like thousands of other victims,” she wrote.
The news media soon picked up her story. The thing that seemed to shock most people was that Polina, as best she can guess, was filmed in the bathroom at a local Shokoladnitsa, one of Russia’s most popular cafe chains. This, at any rate, is what Polina’s “informant” told her. He’s contacted other women filmed in these videos, as well, and some of them say they’ve been able to work out when and how they were recorded by the hidden cameras.
The anonymous informant says he began investigating the videos after one of his relatives became a victim. Now he says he’s trying to figure out who’s behind the videos, and he’s notifying victims using FindFace (a controversial tool that links photographs of people to their Vkontakte accounts).
So far, he says he’s managed to contact less than a dozen victims. (In many of the videos, the faces are barely visible, or FindFace fails to match the people to the correct Vkontakte accounts.) He says he hopes police reports filed by these victims will be enough to prompt a full investigation.
Polina Anisimova and another four women filmed in the bathroom by hidden cameras are now consulting with a lawyer who will bring their case to court. “What happened is a violation of our rights. And now we’re trying to understand what to do about this, and how to restore our rights,” Anisimova says.
The informant says he’s encouraged his relative to take the matter to court, but she is apparently a low-ranking city official, and she’s evidently afraid of losing her job. “Their unspoken policy,” the informant says, “is that they’ll ‘help’ you resign, if you’re mixed up in any scandal—even if you’re the victim.”
The informant refuses to share his identity, saying he doesn’t want to reveal himself, “considering the resources” at the disposal of the people he’s targeting.
A cursory Internet search is enough to demonstrate the mountains of pornography available that features hidden-camera footage of women using public bathrooms in cafes and shopping malls, women in changing rooms, and other similar videos. The market for this content—voyeurs—are people who experience sexual arousal from spying on others. One subgenre of this voyeuristic pornography is hidden-camera footage of women urinating. Some of the people who enjoy these videos are aroused by anything associated with urination.
One of the anonymous informant’s companions, who’s helping Polina and the other women track down the people who filmed them, is a hacker who managed to break into a closed Internet forum for voyeurs. He says most of the voyeurs are between the ages of 35 and 60, and they operate by the rules of a secret society. On the websites where they communicate and exchange videos, there are various different levels of access to the content, and registering to join the community is extremely difficult. The community itself is clearly built to ensure maximum secrecy. The group has its own legends and heroes, too, dedicated to the “best content” and the “best [camera] angles.”
Before the scandal involving Shokoladnitsa, Russia’s voyeurs were a generally invisible community. Every year, hundreds of women in Russia are targeted by those who install hidden cameras and sell the footage, but there have never been high-profile criminal cases or convictions, as a result.
Moscow’s police department says it couldn’t recall a single report filed by any of the women targeted in the videos discovered in the past several months. Police don’t consider it to be a mass phenomenon, noting just a few isolated cases.
The videos like the one Anisimova found are sold on closed websites for voyeurs with complicated registration systems. Some of them are also available on ordinary porn websites. Registering for the closed sites isn’t free, and it can cost up to hundreds of dollars.
The voyeurs’ forums can be divided into “open” and “closed” groups, depending on the complexity of their registration processes. In these groups, members trade stories about their experiences filming and spying, sharing their own videos and other materials they’ve found online, and advising each other on the best equipment for bugging bathrooms.
Judging by what is written in these forums, many of the people recording these videos use miniature cameras disguised as other objects. The most common camouflage hides the camera under what looks like car keys. In Russia, the purchase, manufacture, or sale of special technical means for obtaining private information (without warning the people you’re recording that they’re being filmed) is prohibited by criminal-code article 138.1, which sets a maximum penalty of four years in prison. The biggest case in recent history involving this crime was launched against the opposition figure Natalia Pelevina, a member of the political party Parnas. She was caught with a pen containing a video camera.
The voyeurs themselves mostly seem to believe that they’re not doing anything wrong, though many of them fear for their own safety, spending much of their time online discussing what threats they face.
One former deputy director at a defense plant, for example, didn’t stop spying on women, even after he was exposed. He spent 15 years spying on his colleagues before he was caught, but now he says he “can’t stop doing it” and he still “comes round for some looks.” In another comment thread, the same man enthusiastically describes the state that overtakes him when he sees women urinating: “When I go to the bathroom and start peeping, sometimes I get such a high that my heart starts to hurt—the emotions are so strong and intense! Bathroom views… they take hold of me completely.”
Voyeurs can get excited without even seeing any nudity—the very fact that a person’s privacy has been violated and the feeling of power over an unsuspecting individual can be enough, says clinical psychologist and addictions specialist Veronika Kashirina. In varying degrees, many people enjoy spying on others, Kashirina says, but in rarer cases individuals feel compelled to spy on others, even when it endangers people’s safety. (The International Classification of Diseases categorizes voyeurism as a “disorder of sexual preference.”)
Kashirina says voyeurism is tied to the violation of the psychological boundaries between people: “In our country, there are often five people living in a studio apartment, changing clothes in front of each other, washing without shutting the door, and parents are having sex while their children sleep nearby. This strongly blurs psychological boundaries distorting people’s attitudes about their own intimacy and others’ intimacy, which can be the basis for desires to spy on others, or, quite the opposite, it can encourage some people to avoid guarding themselves, making them want to expose themselves publicly.”
People like this, Kashirina says, often have low self-esteem, and the feeling of superiority over their victims and the support of others in closed online forums helps artificially raise their sense of self-worth, simultaneously suppressing feelings of guilt, the sense of their own “wrongness,” and the fear of being exposed.
But most of these voyeurs aren’t afraid of criminal prosecution. The prospects of being caught are slim, a forum participant tells the group, pointing out optimistically that it’s hard to find their victims, and the content itself, from the perspective of the law, is no different from ordinary pornography. Generally speaking, community members seem to believe, voyeurs just need to be careful and avoid “drawing attention” to the group’s existence, otherwise “those damned journalists might make a big stink.”
If they come for the voyeurs, it won’t be any time soon. The main thing is not to get cocky and not to circulate your content [openly]. After all, our work is already on social networks. Basically, until they’ve caught all the pedophiles, they’ll only catch us randomly. Of course, the stars of our films mostly don’t know that they’re our stars :-) (except when the recordings are done too obviously, which I’ve always opposed) and there needs to be a plaintiff for any criminal charges. And finding the victims and taking their statements is very problematic and complicated in our situation, and the prospects for such cases are pretty slim. That’s why you can only really get busted if you’re caught red handed, if you’re filming too obviously and they file a complaint against you. For the time being, downloading and distributing our content carries the same administrative penalties as with ordinary pornography. But if you draw attention to our existence, then those damned journalists might make a big stink in search of a scandal, and if they strike a nerve with society, then they could come to make an example of someone… That’s why, yes, we need to clean out our ranks (following Stalin’s legacy :-)) and introduce rules prohibiting the distribution of our content, and ideally stop selling content for money, where they then end up on torrent-trackers and attract attention. One way or another.
The hacker who broke into a voyeurs’ forum and used stolen accounts to study its closed sections says the first such communities (one of which was called “Petrovka, 38”) appeared back in the 1990s, in the era of the VHS camera. The biggest community that exists today, which voyeurs call “The Pen” (a shortened form of its original name, “The Piggy Pen”), was created 12 years ago by a person known by the nickname “Keks.”
In connection with this, we’ve now got another admin, HomoDrill. He won’t decide any issue-related matters—this person has been helping us for a long time with the hosting settings, with Apache and PHP, and he needs these rights to do timed tests and bug-squashing. Of course, he’s far better known under a different name and on other resources, but he’s welcome to dilute our oinking crowd with such an original nickname. :-) Almost all the redesign is his work. THANK YOU VERY MUCH!!!
Membership in “The Pen” is closed, and participants have varying levels of access to the website’s different sections. A member’s status and access levels rise for money or new videos uploaded to the site.
“Many veteran voyeurs got out of the business a long time ago, and they enjoy the influx of fresh videos provided to the forum by newcomers who want to advance in the community’s hierarchy and attain a higher status, which grants them access to the forum’s restricted sections with more extreme content,” the hacker explains.
Open forums also have closed sections, where participants distribute their own “works.” Most of these people, judging by the content published in the forums, aren’t pursuing commercial aims, but there are some “operators” who record videos to sell to websites specializing in such content. They sometimes also advertise their productions in the forums’ commercial sections. Communicating very actively in these forums, these “operators” say almost nothing about themselves, while other forum members sometimes share personal stories from their private lives.
One of the informant’s companions says he spoke to a former member of “The Pen,” who says he became one of the website’s sponsors and in 2008 received access to its closed sections. According to this person, there are several major producers of voyeur videos for sale.
“Videos from the outdoors (nudists on the beach, sex in the bushes, women urinating in the forest, and so on) are filmed primarily by ‘Vadukha’ and to a lesser extent by ‘Jerki.’ Hidden-camera footage of women (usually the brides) urinating at wedding parties is the speciality of ‘Zooom.’ ‘Veg,’ meanwhile, films minors urinating in bathrooms. For many years, ‘Fall’ has sat filming upwards directly from inside septic tanks, wearing a gasmask and covered in some kind of blanket or cape. One of the most dangerous voyeurists is ‘Surokspit,’ who used to be a volunteer author and moderator at ‘The Pen.’ He’s operated in Moscow for the past nine years, secretly filming under the skirts of women riding on escalators,” says the informant’s source.
People with these online nicknames are mentioned frequently on voyeur forums, and torrent-tracker websites host thousands of videos allegedly made by these individuals.
There really is an account named “Surokspit” that uploads to paywalled porn websites “upskirt videos” filmed on escalators in the Moscow metro. The same account sells videos recorded on cameras hidden in bags or attached to the tips of umbrellas to a foreign website that specializes in such content.
An “operator” by the name of “Uchebnik” (“Textbook”) has spent many years recording hidden-camera footage in public restrooms. Until about 2009, he belonged to a website with videos available for pay filmed in the bathrooms of cafeterias and schools. In the voyeur community, “Uchebnik” is a legend. “I’m no Uchebnik—I’m only learning,” one user on a voyeur forum writes in his profile, for instance. Forum members note his “signature style” in various videos uploaded anonymously, which have continued appearing on major voyeur porn websites since 2009.
Another way people create “content” for voyeurs is by infecting victims’ computers with a virus that grants hackers remote access to people’s web-cameras.
The voyeurs themselves are often the ones who develop these viruses, in order to target a narrow group of people, so antivirus software is slow to recognize the threat. There is also legal software, says one of TV Rain’s sources, that provides remote access to computers—software that antivirus programs won’t block—that some programmers install on unsuspecting clients’ machines. Videos capturing intimate acts filmed in this way on hijacked web-cameras are also available for purchase in various commercial sections of “The Pen.”
“Web-camera surveillance has become a large-scale form of cyber-fraud,” says Internet expert Anton Merkurov. “All you have to do is download a suspicious program that infects your computer.” He says the best defense against these attacks is to glue a piece of tape across your web-camera, like Facebook-founder Mark Zuckerberg does.
Before the video featuring Polina made it to torrent-tracker porn websites, it was sold to the pay site “Hidden Zone,” as evidenced by the watermark on the footage.
Hidden Zone is one of the largest online resources specializing in content for voyeurs. According to rough data from SimilarWeb (a platform that measures and analyzes user-engagement statistics for websites), more than 90,000 people visited Hidden Zone between April and May 2016.
Many fans of voyeur pornography dream of getting access to Hidden Zone, but it’s a complicated process, thanks to the site’s multi-step registration and the frequency with which the website blocks accounts using stolen passwords. On voyeur forums, there are whole comment threads dedicated to gaining access to Hidden Zone. If you try to access it from a Russian IP address, you’re confronted by a notice claiming that the website has been blocked by Russia’s state censor, Roskomnadzor, though the site isn’t listed on the agency’s Internet “blacklist.”
The site is updated daily. As of June 27, the latest video supposedly filmed in a Russian public restroom was uploaded on June 26.
From Hidden Zone and other pay sites, the videos make their way to torrent-trackers and file-sharing services. They’re distributed by the users who paid for access initially, who then want to share their discoveries with others and simultaneously rise within the hierarchy of voyeur forums.
And that’s how the video with Polina Anisimova found its way to the “unconventional porn” section on one torrent-trackers, along with thousands of other similar videos. It was just one episode in a “series” that was being filmed for years in a public restroom (and maybe there’s still a hidden camera there today).
On one page of the torrent-tracker Polina discovered, there were five “seasons” of videos filmed in women’s restrooms, beginning in 2011 and ending in 2015. The “country of production” is listed as Russia. Every “season” features upwards of 200 women of various ages relieving themselves before hidden cameras. The final installment, apparently recorded last year, was uploaded in January 2016. Every video has a designated serial number, and, judging by the last clip, the whole series appears to contain more than 2,000 videos.
“Just one of these cameras hidden in a public restroom captures hundreds of ‘models’ in a day, but there are only dozens of new videos every week,” one forum user complains.
The folder with videos from 2011 contains quite a variety of footage. Some of the videos were filmed from inside the septic tanks of portable toilets, and others show bathrooms decorated with bright tiles. These locations don’t appear in later “seasons.” In the 2011 folder, you’ll find videos recorded in the bathroom that are identical to the one visible in the video with Polina Anisimova and at least one other woman discovered by her anonymous informant. The second woman says this is the bathroom at the Shokoladnitsa cafe in Moscow near the Oktyabrskaya metro station.
This bathroom appears in hundreds of videos on the other “seasons.” One of the cameras seems to have been installed in the trashcan near the toilet, and in some videos a black garbage bag partly covers the camera’s lens. Videos filmed in another bathroom, the anonymous informant believes, used a camera disguised as a metal holder for paper towels attached to the door, in place of the coat hook. “I have no idea how they managed to drill holes for the screws during business hours and replace one thing with the other,” the informant says.
After Polina’s revelations on Facebook, the users of one popular voyeur forum opened a special thread dedicated to discussing “leaks.” Some of the comments mentioned the Shokoladnitsa chain.
“I can tell you one thing with total certainty: we shouldn’t expect any new videos from Shokoladnitsa anytime soon,” wrote one person on the forum. “But they haven’t found the other Shokoladnitsa,” another user answered.
Another user wondered if the cafe itself might be in on the hidden-camera filming: “…the lazy delusion that the employees or managers have anything to do with this will be dispelled sooner or later, but now—other than these babes themselves—the [cafe’s] security guards will be looking ‘under toilet seats,’ worried about another scandal,” he wrote.
Other than the Shokoladnitsa near the Oktyabrskaya metro station, victims contacted by the anonymous informant have traced hidden-camera videos back to bathrooms at three other Shokoladnitsa locations on Tverskaya Street, Lomonosov Prospekt, and near the Paveletskaya metro station. Searching geolocated photos on Instagram, it’s possible to see that the bathroom interior at the Shokoladnitsa on Tverskaya looked to same two years ago as it does in hidden-camera videos voyeurs say they filmed in 2012, 2013, and early 2014. The bathroom has since been remodeled.
Shokoladnitsa has refused to comment on the information.
In 2014, a user of the website Woman.ru wrote about a hidden camera allegedly discovered in the ladies’ room at a Shokoladnitsa on Lomonosov Prospekt, saying “the cafe’s staff were incredibly rude, and didn’t even apologize.” One of the two Shokoladnitsa cafes on Lomonosov Prospekt told TV Rain that it knew nothing about a hidden-camera incident on its premises. The other Shokoladnitsa cafe said there had been an incident, but it had been at a different cafe. (Staff refused to specify.)
The video collection in question was filmed in at least seven different locations, but they all display identical beige and brown colors, making it impossible to determine where exactly these bathrooms were.
Shokoladnitsa has been reluctant to comment on such incidents. Immediately after Anisimova’s revelations, the cafe chain’s general director, Tamara Shesterina, promised in an interview that the cafes’ security guards would verify the reports about hidden cameras. She said the company’s security cameras operate only in the hallways and work area, and claimed not to have any information about hidden cameras installed in the bathrooms.
Speaking to the radio station Echo of Moscow, a member of Shokoladnitsa’s security team also doubted the presence of such cameras in bathrooms, saying their installation would have been hard not to notice.
Tamara Shesterina promised to forward TV Rain’s questions to Shokoladnitsa’s press service, but two days later she said the company’s representatives would offer a comment only “when it was deemed necessary.” In the end, marketing director Elena Rusanova told TV Rain that Shokoladnitsa is declining to comment on the matter. The company has not contacted Polina Anisimova.
Polina says her potential lawyer believes her case should interest the police, given its scale. Mari Davtyan, another attorney, says the actions of people who film and distribute these videos falls under criminal-code article 137, which bans invasions of personal privacy. “The issue of privacy covers anything intimate in people’s lives—not just sexual content, but anything considered by society to be private. Given that people go to the bathroom alone, this is a private moment in people’s lives that doesn’t concern others,” Davtyan explains.
Davtyan says she’s never worked cases like this one, but she’s familiar with instances where a court recognizes the distribution of a sex tape to be an invasion of privacy. “By this logic, it’s quite possible to assume that the distribution of such [bathroom] videos might also be classified according to article 137,” she says, adding that any use of a person’s image (including in videos) without that individual’s permission is also a violation of administrative-code article 152.1.
According to Davtyan, it’s not possible to say if the videos filmed in bathrooms qualify legally as pornography, until after an expert examination. “Pornography presupposes sexual intercourse or some kind of sexual behavior. But it’s clear that this footage was recorded for the purpose of sexual arousal, as the videos were distributed on websites designed for this reason,” she says.
At the same time, some of the women contacted by the anonymous informant have refused to go to police about the videos. “They’re in a stage of denial, thinking ‘If I don’t say anything, it means it didn’t happen,’” Anisimova says, trying to explain their logic.
“For most people, learning that they were used as a sexual object without their knowledge is quite traumatic,” says psychologist Veronika Kashirina. “This is because violations of personal privacy are tied to violations of our sense of personal safety, and the intimate sphere is interlinked with our biological, social, spiritual, and value spheres. This is the space that a person normally guards from outsiders. So the normal reaction to the violation of such a psychological boundary is anger and the desire to put a stop to it, and protect oneself from similar things in the future.” Kashirina says in some cases these invasions of privacy can cause injuries to victims not unlike what is experienced by victims of rape, for example, who can develop post-traumatic stress disorders. In these cases, she says, people should consult a specialist.
Polina, meanwhile, says taking the matter public was her “natural defense mechanism.” “I was angry, I was upset, and the natural result of my emotions became this [Facebook] post. In this case, I feel like there are parallels to domestic violence. I remembered right away how Anya Zhavnerovich [a Russian journalist who publicly revealed that she’d been the victim of domestic violence] bravely talked about everything that happened to her. And I’m not the first one to be contacted by this anonymous guy. The others either just banned him [on Vkontakte], or they hushed up, after learning the truth,” Anisimova says.