One interesting aspect of our privacy is photography and filming in public places. If you show up in a public place, then any individual can take a picture of you. There’s nothing you can do about it, you just have to accept it. And you ARE being photographed almost all the time. If not on tourists’ snapshots and home videos, then on surveillance cameras operated by the authorities.
There seem to be a war between these two groups of photographers, especially in US after 9/11. Ordinary people who take snapshots of fine buildings have noticed this. Photography is often considered suspicious activity and many innocent tourists have been treated like suspect terrorists. Security guru Bruce Schneier has pointed out several times that the authorities watch far too much TV. They try to fight movie-plot threats rather than real terrorism. The war against photography is a good example. TV needs visual elements so the villains often goes on a photo trip before the strike. No pictures are however found when investigating real terrorism. Simply because they are not needed. To fly a jumbo into a skyscraper you need a map, not a photo of the building taken from ground level. But the authorities are desperately seeking ways to show that they are doing something, so photography becomes a convenient target.
What brings this to mind right now is the Boston bombs. There is said to be around 600 surveillance cameras in the area. FBI also had the suspected bomber’s face on file and was able to run automated face recognition against the surveillance footage. But that wasn’t enough, so they turned to the public and asked for photos and videos shot by ordinary citizens. The former enemy suddenly became a friend when FBI didn’t have enough footage themselves.
The request turned out to be successful. Submitted amateur footage is reported to have been crucial in identifying the bombers. This proved that photography in public places contributes to security rather than poses a threat.
I wonder when we reach the point where FBI doesn’t have to ask for these photos? More and more people upload their shots to social media sites. Chances are that the Tsarnaev brothers already are published by many ordinary citizens on their private walls, Flickr-accounts etc. Time and position metadata makes these shots suitable for face recognition scans. Privacy settings are of course an obstacle, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the US authorities demanded full access to such photos bypassing the security settings. An even scarier scenario, what if FBI gets legal access to all shots that smartphones upload automatically? The shots from my mobile camera land on SkyDrive. Personally I don’t like the idea of participating in an intelligence network with global reach but operated by a national agency.
Will this case change anything? I would like to see the Boston incident as an eye-opener that contributes to a less hostile attitude against photographing citizens. But that is probably naive. The war against photography will most likely go on just like before, at least until the next case where FBI need some help. And we may be heading towards a world where the authorities doesn’t ask kindly for these shots, but grab what they want from the net. Let’s hope that the legislators and privacy advocates manage to maintain a balance between privacy and terrorism hysteria.
Image by R/DV/RS @ Flickr
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