‘Please stop watching us’: Live-stream video platform accused of privacy violations

Society & Culture

Online live broadcast service Waterdrop Livestream 水滴直播, operated by internet company Qihoo 360, is under fire after a video investigative report by citizen journalist Chen Feifei 陈菲菲 exposed the company’s installation of surveillance cameras in various locations across Beijing. Real-time footage caught by these cameras has been streamed on Waterdrop for the public to watch and comment on.

Chen’s video (also embedded above) that went viral on the social media platform Weibo shows 657 surveillance cameras in classrooms, restaurants, grocery stores, cybercafes, and gyms that streamed live footage to the internet. The reporter tracked down a few places offering live footage on the platform and found that none of them had notified their customers that they were being recorded.

A man is caught on video paying via mobile.
Waterdrop’s cameras have been found in gyms, hospitals, massage parlors, and even lingerie stores.

People interviewed in the video were all shocked to be informed that they were being watched by strangers online. Some shop owners told Chen that Waterdrop gave its cameras to them as free gifts, and that they were never required to put up notices of public filming. However, an announcement on the Waterdrop platform suggests that “vendors must place clear signs to warn customers about filming.” To accompany the video, Chen also wrote a letter (in Chinese) to Zhou Hongyi 周鸿祎, the chairman and CEO of Qihoo, saying, “Please stop watching us.”

Chen’s video and letter prompted a wave of criticism online, with many internet users accusing the company of  privacy violations. In response, Waterdrop Livestream released a statement (in Chinese) on December 12, denying wrongdoing of any kind.

The company said that the live-streaming feature of its cameras is disabled by default, and that it had told camera owners to inform their customers that they were being filmed. Moreover, Waterdrop stated that it cuts off the streaming signal if it discovers that a vendor has enabled the live-streaming function without informing customers.

But as Chen pointed out in the letter, this is not the first time that Waterdrop has raised serious questions about privacy violations. In April, the company made headlines for installing webcams in classrooms (paywall) and streaming the footage live to the public. In the same month, Southern Metropolis Daily reported (in Chinese) that cameras from Waterdrop were discovered in many places that they were not supposed to be, such as hospitals, massage parlors, and even lingerie stores.

“Currently live-streaming”

UPDATE, 12/20: Qihoo 360 has shut down the operation.