"Surveillance Camera Man" Draws Ire, Provokes Questions About Recording in Public

by pkumar

Imagine walking down the street. Above, you see a surveillance camera mounted on a pole. Would you worry? What if a person walked over and filmed you, no questions asked?

An anonymous man in his late 20s has posted five “Surveillance Camera Man” videos in which he films people on Seattle streets and inside cars, stores, and classrooms, to the ire of those on camera. The videos raise questions about expectations of privacy in an age where institutions and individuals can easily and legally record others. Removal of the videos on various sites also highlights free speech and copyright concerns.

The cameraman and a friend began filming others as a social experiment, but he went solo after his friend couldn’t keep a straight face, according to an email interview posted on the blog Photography Is Not a Crime. His first video included forays into classrooms at the University of Washington. He posted the video on Vimeo, but the site took it down after a complaint from the university, the cameraman said. He expressed nonchalance at people calling the police on him, saying he doesn’t care about the legality of his actions. (He appears to care about copyright, as video embeds on GeekWire, BoingBoing, and Laughing Squid are unavailable due to copyright claims.)

When people in the videos asked what he was doing, the cameraman often remained quiet or said, “I'm just taking a video.” When they asked why, he occasionally responded, “Why not?” His casual tone and terse responses quickly frustrated and angered people, some of whom hurled expletives or tried to cover the camera. Several threatened to call the police; the cameraman left only when some began dialing. He also left if people became aggressive, often telling them to calm down as he backed away.

Some articulated their feelings without resorting to profanity. “I may be in a public space, but I feel threatened by you,” said one man wearing what resembled a guard or law enforcement uniform. And while the cameraman appeared to do nothing more than hold the camera and occasionally speak, GeekWire reported that YouTube took down one video based on a policy that prohibits material meant to “harass, threaten, or bully.” YouTube appeared to reverse the decision, as the video is now accessible.

Some people mentioned they did not consent to the taping. “You didn’t ask me if you could take a picture of me sir,” one woman said. “You still have me on camera, and that’s not OK with me. That’s an invasion of my privacy and my time.” The cameraman occasionally referenced the prevalence of surveillance cameras, but he didn’t belabor the point, which was, “blurred by the fact that he sometimes invades his subjects' personal space, making it unclear whether the discomfort they exhibit comes from having a person standing right by them, or whether it's the camera they object to,” wrote Cory Doctorow.

The cameraman’s actions appear to be legal. People can typically record in public areas such as sidewalks and parks without consent since no general expectation of privacy exists in public, according to the Digital Media Law Project. The same usually holds for recording activity that occurs on private property but can be observed from public space. Washington's Supreme Court has ruled that someone can visibly record conversations in public that others can hear.

While the law may not protect people from recordings in public, people clearly distinguish between who’s doing the recording. Canadian filmmaker Rob Spence, who has a bionic eye with a camera, told Reuters in 2009, “In Toronto there are 12,000 cameras. But the strange thing I discovered was that people don't care about the surveillance cameras, they were more concerned about me and my secret camera eye because they feel that is a worse invasion of their privacy."

This comment from Spence, who calls himself the Eyeborg, brings to mind Google Glass, which has already captured an arrest on camera. But since Glass doesn’t explicitly alert people when it shoots video, perhaps Surveillance Camera Man is inciting a much-needed conversation by forcing people to face the uncomfortable feeling they’re being recorded.