The Right to Watch?

I’ve always defended the right to photograph in public places. However, a number of cases in the last few weeks are highlighting an important new development in this area, a new front in the increasingly confusing information wars. Gary Marx always like to say that surveillance is neither good nor bad but that intent, circumstances, and effects make it so, but a growing number of people and organizations seem to be treating surveillance – or at least watching, and certainly not all watching is surveillance – as a right which supersedes rights to privacy. We’ve seen this in the case of Google Glass – even before it was launched commercially – and more recently with the arguments over the ‘right to be forgotten’ in Europe, with personal privacy being counterposed to freedom of information and actions to protect privacy being compared to censorship. It’s all somewhat reminiscent of Dave Eggers’ novel, The Circle, in which a Facebook-Google-Apple-a-like company completely turns around social values until, as one of the corporate slogans has it, “PRIVACY IS THEFT!”

The latest case is that of the use of drones / micro-UAVs / MAVs in the USA. The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), the government body that controls US airspace, is trying to regulate the use of drones and has attempted to fine commercial drone operators who fly surveillance drones without their permission. The case revolves around one Robert Pirker, who used an unlicensed drone to film a promotional video back in 2011. At the moment the FAA is appealing against the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), who rule that it could not fine Pirker as it did have jurisdiction over small drones. Now the media has weighted in on Pirker’s side, arguing that the FAA’s stance infringes the first amendment and creates a ‘chilling effect’ on journalism.

I’m really not sure about either argument. On the FAA side, this is partly about a bureaucracy trying to keep control of its regulatory territory as much it is about the object of the regulation – the FAA does not want to be seen to be losing control just as the number of small drones is increasing massively.

On the other side, is this really about the rights of journalists? Pirker was making a commercial film not covering a story, and the effect of the FAA’s ruling being overturned is more likely to open the door to a corporate free-for-all, an absurd PKDickian world of drones as far as the eye can see, with all the attendant crashes and legal battles, could result. Think not? Well, back in the 1900s, people thought there would never be that many cars on the roads either… so it is certainly it is partly about their mandate, i.e. air safety.

The big question here, as with Google Glass and with Search, is whether technological change makes a difference. Is a flying camera just the same as a hand-held camera? Does the greater potential for intrusion, or on the other hand the inability to know that one is being filmed, matter? Does that possibility that ‘the truth’ will be revealed justify any technological method used to obtain it? If not, which ones are acceptable, whereis the line drawn, and who decides and how? In the UK, the ‘public interest’ would be a good basis for deciding, as has been frequently alluded to in the Leveson Inquiry into telephone tapping conducted by Murdoch-owned newspapers, however ‘public interest’ is a much vaguer term in the USA… what is certain is that conflicts around the ‘right to watch’ versus the ‘right to privacy’ and other human rights and social priorities are only going to intensify.

What now for the UK’s anti-terrorism laws?

On the 12th of January, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in the case of Gillan and Quinton v. the United Kingdom, that UK police powers to randomly stop and search people under Sections 44-47 of The Terrorism Act (2000) were unlawful. This is the third recent ruling by the ECHR against the current direction of the UK’s security policies (after the ruling in S. and Marper v. the UK, against the police retaining DNA profiles and fingerprints from people not convicted of any offence). It also follows the furore over the London Metropolitan Police’s interpretation of Sections 43, 44 and 58s of The Terrorism Act in relation to public photography.* The case was brought by two people, Pennie Quinton a journalist who was on her way to cover a demonstration against an arms fair in London in September 2003,, and Kevin Gillan, who was cycling past.

Section 44 allows the police to stop and search anyone on the basis of a ‘reasonable suspicion’ that they may be in posssession of information or items that may be useful in committing an act of terrorism. The case in the ECHR was on several principles, most of which were rejected, but most importantly the Court found that arbitrary stop and search dis violate Article 8 of the European Convention, on the right to privacy. This was because “the use of the coercive powers conferred by the legislation to require an individual to submit to a detailed search of his person, his clothing and his personal belongings amounts to a clear interference with the right to respect for private life”.

Furthermore the UK government once again argued, as it did equally unsuccessfully in the case of Peck v. UK back in 2003, that Article 8 did not apply as there was no right privacy in public places. This argument, the Court not only rejected but actually argued that the publicness of the stop and search made the violation of privacy worse:

“Although the search is undertaken in a public place, this does not mean that Article 8 is inapplicable. Indeed, in the Court’s view, the public nature of the search may, in certain cases, compound the seriousness of the interference because of an element of humiliation and embarrassment. Items such as bags, wallets, notebooks and diaries may, moreover, contain personal information which the owner may feel uncomfortable about having exposed to the view of his companions or the wider public.”

This was a well-thought out ruling which made the arguments pretty clear. However the response of the UK government, as in the DNA case, leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, it has basically said, “make me”! The government intends to ignore the ruling in everyday practice, as it did with Peck, and will continue to allow police to carry out such searches whilst it appeals the case. This also means that there will be no disciplinary action against any officer who follows this policy, despite its now being unlawful.

*This of course is by no means over either, and there will be a mass photography action, “I’m a Photographer Not a Terrorist!”, on January 23rd at 12 Noon, Trafalgar Square in London.

British cops still haven’t got the message about photography

There is a disturbing film and story on The Guardian site which shows two London Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) hassling an Italian art student, Simona Bonomo, largely, it seems to me, because she wasn’t submissive towards them and stood up for herself. This comes several months after the Home Office issued new guidelines, yet it looks like photography and filming is still being treated as if it is inherently suspicious – as Marc Vallée points out.

The additional issue is that PCSOs are not even proper trained police officers in the first place, yet they increasingly seem to be under the impression that they can make the kind of judgements that senior police officers should be making. There need to be some changes to UK law here (amongst many of course!) – one to replace Section 44 of the Terrorism Act, since it seems clear that it can’t be interpreted appropriately, and secondly, the powers of PCSOs need to more carefully delineated and restricted.

For those involved in photography, video or film-making, in the UK or nearby, there will be a mass photography action, “I’m a Photographer Not a Terrorist!”, on January 23rd at 12 Noon, Trafalgar Square in London.

The end of the war on photographers?

The UK Home Office has finally issued a circular on Photography and Counter-Terrorism (012/2009) in response to the widespread complaints about police harassment of both professional and amateur photographers in the name of ‘anti-terrorism’ – which I covered here and here. The circular advises police of can and cannot be done under three separate parts of the Terrorism Act 2000: Sections 43 on searches, 44 on authorised area searches and 58A on eliciting and publishing information on members of the police, armed forces or intelligence services, which was introduced as part of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008. This is of course to be welcomed, even if it is rather late in the day.

On Section 43, they make is clear that the Act “does not prohibit the taking of photographs, film or digital images in a public place and members of the public and the press should not be prevented from doing so in exercise of the powers conferred by section” and that it is the suspicion of being a terrorist that gives the justification for any search, not the fact of taking photographs.

On Section 44, they remind the police that neither the Press nor public can be prevented from taking pictures in an area defined as an ‘authorised area’ by the police, and that officers have no powers to delete pictures or seize film. And finally, on Section 58a, they remind officers that ‘reasonable excuses’ for taking pictures, even of subjects considered sensitive, include tourism, sight-seeing and journalism. Interestingly, however, they do not actually give academic research as an example of reasonable excuse!

Of course, all of this serves to remind us that the Terrorism Act was drawn way too vaguely and widely and gave too much discretion to individual police forces and officers in its interpretation. Earlier this year, Jack Straw promised at several meetings that the government was to review all of the legislation on terrorism and counter-terrorism – perhaps this guidance is a result but it is only about interpretation and does not make or propose any change to the law itself.

‘X-ray vision’ may not be so far away…

Fascinating and disturbing news from the MIT Technology Review blog that a team of researchers appears to have cracked the problem of how to produce cheap, effective Terahertz Wave (TW) cameras and receivers. TW are found between infrared and microwave radiation, and produce what we called in A Report on the Surveillance Society, a ‘virtual strip search’, as they penetrate under layers of clothing but not much further, and can thus produce images of the body ‘stripped’ of clothing. Thus far, they’ve been used on an experimental basis in some airports and not really any further afield.

This is largely because of the way that TW waves have been detected up until now has basically been a bit of a kludge, a side-effect of another process. This has meant that TW equipment has been generally quite large and non-portable (amongst other things).

However one Michel Dyakonov of the University of Montpellier II in France has followed up theoretical work he did in the 1990s, with a new larger team, to show that tiny (nanoscale) ‘field effect transistors’ can – and they are still not quite sure how exactly – both produce and detect TW. The details are in Technology Review, but the crucial thing for those interested in surveillance is that:

  1. the output is ‘good enough for video’; and
  2. ‘they can be built into arrays using standard silicon CMOS technology’ which means small, cheap (and highly portable) equipment. This could be an add-on to standard video cameras.

I’m getting a genie-out-of-bottles feeling with this, but is it really as damaging to personal privacy as it feels? Does this really ‘reveal’ anything truly important? Or will it become something to which we rapidly become accustomed, and indeed with with which we quickly get bored? In some cultures, specially those that regard covering the body and modesty as being god-given, this is clearly going to present massive challenges to social and moral norms. It seems to me that there is also an immediate conflict with current constitutional and legal rights in several jurisdictions, not least the US Fourth Amendment right not to be subjected to warrantless searches and the European Convention Article Eight on the right to privacy.

But it seems that unless such a technology is banned, or at least particular commercial implementations, we’re about to cross another Rubicon almost before we’ve noticed it has happened. Ironically bans on technology can only really be effective in states where intensive surveillance and state control of behaviour is practiced. In other places, I am not sure banning can be effective even if it were desirable, as in reality, a ban simply means reserving the use of the technology to criminals, large corporations which can afford to flout laws, and the state.