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.