Only terrorists take pictures. More fun in Bush’s America.

The trend of photographers being harassed by Police for taking pictures of public buildings continues. Word from fellow blogger Etan over at Too Much Sexy is that he’s become the latest person to be stopped and questioned by police for the supposed crime of taking pics of various things around his college campus:

I was declared a terrorist, today. As I was walking around campus photographing art, buildings, cars, people, I was stopped by police.

The policemen asked who I was, what I was doing, why I was taking photographs, where I lived, all the good stuff. When I told them I was a student taking photographs for my own personal enjoyment (a concept they couldn’t comprehend) I was told this is illegal under USA PATRIOT act.

I was greatly confused by this statement. My understanding is that I am legally allowed to take photographs of public buildings. I informed them of this and they were taken aback. They then went on to tell me that NJIT is not a public institution. They told me that it is publicly funded but not a public school. This is a blatant lie. If you visit NJIT’s website you see very clearly, “A Public Research University.”

Stuff like this floors me and makes me want to wander around town taking pictures of public buildings just out of spite. The fact that it’s happened to a blogger I’ve talked with quite a bit makes it hit much closer to home. Bush keeps claiming he’s made America safer, but only from people who might take pictures of City Hall it would seem. And people wonder why I laugh when they tell me the Bush administration hasn’t damaged our civil liberties.

22 thoughts on “Only terrorists take pictures. More fun in Bush’s America.

  1. Well, that goes without saying…they tried to confiscate my sister’s cameras at the airport on her return trip from the UK. She didn’t put up with it and neither did the adult chaperones who were with their group. Needless to say, after being threatened with harrassment charges and of charges of trying to steal her possessions AND a call to my cousin who works for the Justice Department, she got to keep her cameras. Patriot Act my ass, it’s doing the work of the terrorists for them.

  2. I take tons of pictures, and do so with this nifty little camera from Aiptek.  I’ve even become skilled at doing so without having to look through the view-finder.  Understandably, if i saw someone with an itsy-bitsy camera taking pictures, and doing so without having to look through the camera, but merely with a slight of hand jesture, i’d be *very* suspicious.

    I have absolutely no problem with police questioning individuals taking pictures.  It’s a no-brainer.  Now, arrest them? hold them as material-witnesses in some cold lower-Manhattan cell for weeks without a lawyer, etc?  That’s another story.

    But, be sure:  I wonder how many of you would be upset about such police questioning when we lose part of a city to nuke/bio/chem attack.  (And that possability is by no means a remote one.)

    Remember, Beslan can happen here, too.
    We don’t live in DisneyWorld anymore.

    rob@egoz.org

  3. It’s not the questioning I have a problem with. It’s the bullshit lies about it being against the law or requiring permission that I have a problem with. Show me a single planned attack that has been thwarted because police harassed someone taking pictures in a public place.

    We’ve already lost part of a city to a terrorist attack, not to mention some of our civil liberties as well, and we’ve never lived in Disney World. No one disputes the idea that another attack is possible, most of us probably think it’s likely, but draconian misuse of a law isn’t how you protect people from the threat of terrorism.

  4. Okay, two issues. There is a certain amount of heavy-handedness going around that seems indicative of a marriage of power-drunk rank and file and a management that condones, if not actively encourages this show of force. The way I see it, they take cheap shots at the wrong targets.

    The question is not whether this kind of behaviour could be retroactively justified looking forward to the next conceivable atrocity, but what the American public prefers: Live in as open a society as possible and accept the risk, or go whole hog and erect a police state and abandan the US as we know in the process.

    In other words, what is the risk and what’s the price people are willing to mitigate it?

  5. The question is not whether this kind of behaviour could be retroactively justified looking forward to the next conceivable atrocity, but what the American public prefers: Live in as open a society as possible and accept the risk, or go whole hog and erect a police state and abandan the US as we know in the process.

    All misdeads can be justified retroactively, the Jesuits were great at “The End Justifies the Means”.

    Which is more precious? Your short term secuity, or the long term experiment called America. People have given their lives to protect these rights, and to piss them away after 200+ years in a knee jerk reaction to even an atrocity such as 9/11 is an afront to what America should be, and who we should be… but what do I know, I am a silly libertarian who trusts the government in general as far as I can throw it, and this current administration as far as Bush can count without taking his shoes off…

  6. if i saw someone with an itsy-bitsy camera taking pictures, and doing so without having to look through the camera, but merely with a slight of hand jesture, i’d be *very* suspicious.

    No problem: I’m a terrorist, so I buy postcards taken by professionals on clear days with no one blocking the view.  Or I shave, dress in a nice business suit, smile, and take a picture using a large camera, with my wife standing in the foreground smiling.

  7. The whole “Liberty-vs-Security” debate is often framed in two extremes by the uniformed (and sometimes emotionally hysterical); To paraphrase their view: “We either live in an Albanian style police state where all are under suspicion until determined otherwise *or* we have a live-n-let-live society where freedom rings upon every action we take.”

    Not so.

    Take a moment to consider the motivation of the cop.  Do you (seriously) think s/he is questioning the photographer merely to bully the citizen?  Seriously?  For what purpose?  To merely give the press more anti-cop fodder?  To motivate the citizen to file a complaint them? —OR, do you think the police officer might have legitimate concerns about the citizen’s activity?  For sure, absolutely, cops exist that do bully.  But, they are a minority in most districts (except, perhaps, LA wink.  Annecdotal reasoning (e.g., “On my last trip to SanFran I saw a cop intimidate an old Asian donut maker into giving him free coffee.  SanFran cops sure do hate Asian donut makers!”) doesn’t make a trend.  It makes an interesting media story for the wires to carry.

    I often tell people there are two types of cops in America:
    [] those that seek glory (a minority)
    [] those that seek to serve (the majority)

    I agree that a cop who approaches a photographing-citizen and claims they are violating the law is misguided.  But, remember, our press and media concentrate on the *exceptions* and the *unusual*, not the normal and good.  Thus, we hear and read about what is wrong, not what is right.  The media is, by its very nature, polemical (and that’s a good thing).

    Cops *should* question individuals that are taking pictures of assets.  It’s their job.  But, they should do so in a professional manner.  That a few cops do so in a manner contrary to the Protect & *Serve* ideology does not negate the utility, or wisdom, of keeping an eye out for those doing recon of our community’s assets.

    The Bill of Rights can survive a policy of smart security policing (and will, if our society’s discourse on the subject is any measure).  Asking a question of purpose and intent does not infringe upon our liberties.

    I see an America in 10 years where individuals have very, very, very little privacy whilst operating in public (this means internet use, travel, shopping, etc.).  But, in contrast, citizens shall have even greater privacy in the confines of their home.  Less privacy in community, absolute privacy at home.

    There’s a middle ground in this debate.
    And that’s where America usually finds itself, and belongs:  the moderate middle, not the irrational extremes.

    rob@egoz.org

    P.S.  Just so you know, many of the people installed here pre9/11 to logistically support the hijackers and to preform recon. of sites DID so *with* their families in tow, for obvious reasons. (Many of these families uprooted themselves, often leaving behind fully furnished apartments, just before 9/11).  Law enforcement is equally aware of that “foriegn family” profile as well, but it makes for less-than-interesting reading and is somewhat rarer than individual operatives, given the larger footprint (and operational price) a family ensues.

  8. Thank you for calling me uninformed and emotionally hysterical. The motivation of the cop in no way changes the fact that it was wrong to lie about the law. The fact that it sounds like he was an ass about it only further puts him in the wrong. This isn’t an isolated case and it’s spreading beyond just picture taking. This guy in Nantucket was told he couldn’t use a library’s wireless Internet service outside of the library because it was illegal. “Theft of services” he was told which is complete bullshit. When the story got around to the local paper and they looked into it the cop changed his story as well as his claim of the legality of it.

    Again, I don’t have a problem with a cop asking questions if he sees something he thinks is suspicious. Hell, he should’ve been doing that long before 9/11 came along. However how the hell can he expect to enforce the law when it’s clear he’s fucking ignorant of the law?

    Yes, the Bill of Rights can survive a policy of smart security policing. It’s just too damned bad we don’t seem to have any smart cops doing the policing. Having my rights trampled by a cop because some dumbass managed to get a badge without learning the laws he’s supposed to enforce isn’t right now matter HOW well intentioned he happens to be. You’re right that asking a question of intent doesn’t infringe on our rights per se, but stopping us from engaging in perfectly legal activities because you’re a dumbass does.

    It’s clear you don’t have a clue what the problem here is so I’m not sure I understand how you can attempt to tell us where the middle ground might lay. Especially when you’re not proposing a middle ground at all.

  9. What Les said.

    Rob is missing the third type of cop, the one that I call the Bad Apple. If you’re unfortunate enough to attract their attention, all bets are off. And as they say in Germany, “Der Fisch stinkt vom Kopf” – the fish starts to stink from the head…

    My father was the head of the county’s uniformed police and I have grown up among cops, but that only makes me even more sensitive to abuses. Rob seems oblivious about exactly how the “security staff” in question stepped out of line and like Les, I’m still waiting for what Rob considers the middle ground. So far his basic message is to “relax and enjoy”…

  10. (Just for the record: i didn’t call Les or any particular person(s) uniformed or emotionally hystrical.  I was referring, generally speaking, to participants in this *national* debate.  If you examine my posts, here and elsewhere on the net, you will note that i very, very rarely address anyone individually.  I try to keep my comments completely non-personal—for obvious reasons.  I believe it is vitally important to distinguish between not only rhetoric and reasoning, but between individual selves and the topics at hand, no matter how emotionally difficult.  Those two ideas are the seeds of any good democractic forum.  Embrace reasoning, abandon emotions.)

    The middle ground i *did* briefly outline in this text.  I should have probably been more explicit that this was what i was referring to:
    “I see an America in 10 years where individuals have very, very, very little privacy whilst operating in public (this means internet use, travel, shopping, etc.).  But, in contrast, citizens shall have even greater privacy in the confines of their home.  Less privacy in community, absolute privacy at home.”

    Today American culture, by and large, has a problem with cops asking people questions, which is generally healthy.  This falls under the generally widespread misunderstanding that, somewhere, we have a right to privacy in the public sphere.  Not so.

    What i see happening, especially out of this national debate, is a gradual settlement on the notion of whether public privacy is a good idea.  This development is a natural result of increased communication and interaction, on a scale never seen by human societies.  We’re advancing as a culture.

    I see a near-future society where our public lives are easily viewable and available to scrutiny by not only law enforcement agencies, but by marketing firms, and even individuals.  Your life in the public sphere shall soon cease to be private.  Webcams will be more widespread than any of us could imagine, and easily viewable.  People will, literally, have webcams installed in their clothing.  Consider it a communal-audit trail on mass scale, protecting all involved.

    In Europe there are tons of examples of CCTV being used in court cases, law enforcement, marketing research, etc.  Webcams in America, both public and privately installed, will follow, but on a more massive, individual scale.

    Meanwhile, our lives within our homes (phone, tv, net, etc.) shall be protected under a more refined notion of the “right to privacy”, requiring even harder-to-obtain warrants to penetrate.  In a way, our public lives will be extremely public, viewable to all, while our private lives at home sacred to the extreme.

    It will take some time, some gripes, and some mis-understandings, and a few simultaneous, multi-region terrorist attacks to establish this more advanced notion of privacy.  But, come it will.

    Lastly, i don’t think anyone that researches this issue, or the media articles mentioned, rationally believes that law-enforcement is, by and large, abusing people’s rights to take photos or use wi-fi or travel with personal possessions not being confiscated.  As previously said, the media is designed to magnify the exceptions to the norm.  And that is what these articles are about.

    We can read these pieces and say “Wooo Nelly!  This country is turning into Fidel’s Paradise!”  Or, we can read this articles for what they really are: annecdotal accounts of a few bad law-enforcement apples being publicly lambasted for their on-the-job excesses.

    rob@egoz.org

  11. Rob, you should leave it at “I see an America in 10 years where individuals have very, very, very little privacy”. Do you seriously believe it’s possible to abandon privacy in public while strengthening it in private? When our set-top boxes already phone home our watching habits, phones are easily wiretapped, Internet communication is easily monitored, and surveillance tools exist that already look into a home? For that matter, what are the costs and benefits of what you envision?

    It is debatable how much privacy we have left at this point, it is also debatable whether or not this is good or bad in specific instances. However, the middle ground you suggest sounds too Orwellian to me.

    Are the media exaggerating the situation with regards to heavy-handed enforcement? Perhaps, but even if they do I’d consider it a good thing. At least this has a chance of either nipping this trend in the bud or exposing a more nefarious intent behind these security measures.

  12. Judicial oversight of law enforcement has been fairly pro-active and effective in American history.  It’s amazing what laws can do to limit government power.  That whole revolution and bill-o-rights thing i will cite as an example.

    Our culture is going through a sort of revolution presently.  The phrase “the power of the internet” says it all.  Case in point:  All the law-enforcement abuses discussed here, imagine how differently they might have gone if the cop could safely assume the entire interaction was being recorded by the individual’s personal webcam.

    I wonder how many TSA agents thieves, or anti-outdoor-wifi cops would there be if we all had webcams, on all the time whilst in public.

    Again, imagine a huge, individually massive webcam audit trail for all public interactions.

    That’s power.

     

    rob@egoz.org

  13. Rob,

    The Bill of Rights can survive a policy of smart security policing (and
    will, if our society’s discourse on the subject is any measure).  Asking a
    question of purpose and intent does not infringe upon our liberties.

    Unfortunately this requires smart, intelligent, and well meaning legislators and populace, something I see a deficit in around these parts. I agree, there could be a middle ground, but to define the middle,you need to define the circumference in toto. I do not think all cops are bad, just as I do not believe all middle eastern men taking pictures are terrorists. What I do have a problem is when people say that we have to give cops a break when one acts up because not all are bad, but when one middle eastern man does something amis, the same people call for dragnets of anyone who looks like they may be middle eastern, or atleast not WASPy. (This is not directed at anyone in particular, just a general note of the hypocracy of the position).

    I see an America in 10 years where individuals have very, very, very little
    privacy whilst operating in public (this means internet use, travel,
    shopping, etc.).  But, in contrast, citizens shall have even greater privacy
    in the confines of their home.  Less privacy in community, absolute privacy
    at home.

    I see your america, and raise you one where Liberty is still something that is honored…

    I doubt that our homes will have any more protection than we will in public. Your buying/spending/saving habits will be noted, your travel habits, etc etc etc… not necesarily by the Gov’t but by corporations who will be strongarmed into sharing said databases wiht the Gov’t to ‘protect the homeland’ or ‘protect the children’ or what ever new boogey man comes down the ‘pike.

    I see the major differences as those who belive the government is a huge benevolent creature with our best interests at heart, and those who think it is a huge malevolent creature with its own interests at heart… me I am somewhere in the middle, but trending towards the malevolent view sometimes smile

    Again, imagine a huge, individually massive webcam audit trail for all public interactions.

    That is not power, that is oppression waiting to happen. If that were to come about ( and I doubt even the sheeple here in the states would accept that much insanity ) I would have to take my leave of the country and declare the experiment that is our Constitutional form of Government a failure and go live somewhere else with more freedoms…

    Feh!

  14. Judicial oversight of law enforcement has been fairly pro-active and effective in American history.

    Is that why activist judges are so inconvenient to some of the Republican persuasion?

    Things are always shades of grey rather than black and white and it’s not like there haven’t been flagrant abuses in the past. What spooks some people today is that they see a perfect storm brewing…

    I wonder how many TSA agents thieves, or anti-outdoor-wifi cops would there be if we all had webcams, on all the time whilst in public.

    Unless you have the capability to rapidly and accurately interpret a torrent of intelligence, increased surveillance is useful at best after the chicken have already flown the coop. Subject to the ulterior motives of surveillance, of course,

  15. Today American culture, by and large, has a problem with cops asking people questions, which is generally healthy.  This falls under the generally widespread misunderstanding that, somewhere, we have a right to privacy in the public sphere.  Not so.

    I completely disagree with your assessment that American culture generally has a problem with cops asking people questions. This may be true of some cross-sections of society that have traditionally suffered from undue oppression at the hands of police, but to claim that it’s the viewpoint of most Americans is not borne out by my personal experience. I would argue that most Americans do expect cops to question people they honestly think are engaged in suspicious activity as long as the suspicion is reasonable and not just a personal bias. That is, after all, their job.

    It may be true that there is a misunderstanding on how much privacy one can expect when out in public, but the laws and judgments establishing these limits have been around for quite awhile now. The courts have established that there is a diminished right to privacy when out in public and the PDF file I linked to earlier outlines what some of those diminished rights entail, but to claim that there is no right to privacy in the public sphere is simply not true.

    What i see happening, especially out of this national debate, is a gradual settlement on the notion of whether public privacy is a good idea.  This development is a natural result of increased communication and interaction, on a scale never seen by human societies.  We’re advancing as a culture.

    This debate has been raging ever since the idea of a right to privacy was first outlined by the Supreme Court on December 15, 1890 and I don’t see the debate showing any signs of settling down anytime soon. Especially not with the rapid advance of technology which first prompted the courts to address this idea in the first place. Consider this portion from the 1890 paper The Right to Privacy published in the Harvard Law Review:

      Recent inventions and business methods call attention to the next step which must be taken for the protection of the person, and for securing to the individual what Judge Cooley calls the right “to be let alone.” Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life; and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that “what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.” For years there has been a feeling that the law must afford some remedy for the unauthorized circulation of portraits of private persons; and the evil of invasion of privacy by the newspapers, long keenly felt, has been but recently discussed by an able writer. The alleged facts of a somewhat notorious case brought before an inferior tribunal in New York a few months ago, directly involved the consideration of the right of circulating portraits; and the question whether our law will recognize and protect the right to privacy in this and in other respects must soon come before our courts for consideration.

    I find it somewhat ironic that you go on to argue that technology will settle this debate when it was technology that started it in the first place.

    I see a near-future society where our public lives are easily viewable and available to scrutiny by not only law enforcement agencies, but by marketing firms, and even individuals.  Your life in the public sphere shall soon cease to be private.  Webcams will be more widespread than any of us could imagine, and easily viewable.  People will, literally, have webcams installed in their clothing.  Consider it a communal-audit trail on mass scale, protecting all involved.

    In Europe there are tons of examples of CCTV being used in court cases, law enforcement, marketing research, etc.  Webcams in America, both public and privately installed, will follow, but on a more massive, individual scale.

    You’ll forgive me if I don’t find this to be a particularly appealing vision of the future. To an extent some of this has already come to pass, but the idea that we should expect no privacy at all while in public is one I think the general public will have a hard time swallowing when you consider the full implications. From changing rooms to public restrooms to intimate dinners at the local restaurant, there are a number of easily imaginable situations where most folks would probably agree your vision is a bad idea.

    Certainly your vision makes for a voyeur’s paradise, not to mention easily allowing the government to monitor the public at large for any “troublemakers” who might want to form a protest march. Stalkers would probably love it too, which would bring in the question of just how safe it really would make us.

    Meanwhile, our lives within our homes (phone, tv, net, etc.) shall be protected under a more refined notion of the “right to privacy

  16. I agree with John INSOFAR as that I see the ‘surveillance society’ happening around us. Camera phones are going to become smaller and more capable. Until you get the first ones that can easily be hidden in sunglasses (they exist already, but still provide crappy images and are no mass-market product).

    At some point, I guess they will be so common that trying to protect against them will be an impossible task, short of banning them outright (with all the attendant legal and societal problems of THAT). So we will come to accept/have to accept a less private public space.

    I don’t relish that to much either, especially since I agree with you Les, that it won’t go hand in hand with a more private home.

    But I CAN see positive sides to this too. Would Abu Ghraib have ever hit the news (or NOT been buried by counter-‘information’) if thr troops committing and witnessing it hadn’t had easily usable, small cameras? Why do you think the military bans camera phones now? (At least I heard it does).

    ‘Total’ surveillance. A scary thought. But then, privacy discussion does change with the times. I remember Heinlein advocated leaving any country which made the carrying of identity papers mandatory. Gee, I would have had to emigrate long since…

  17. Les I think Rob Adams is a defeatist. There is no reason The U.S. will follow the British model. Our conception of Public Freedom goes way beyond what is generally accepted on the continent.
    I agree with you and elwedriddsche and John Hoke that it is more about abuse of authority and really john bull type police mentality than any deal with terror.
    Les you use computers even build the things, how onipotent are they. Here where I live they sell these neat little gadgets (in the gray area of legality) that BLOCK camera phones from working. A godsend for HighSchool and College Lecturers. For every monitoring technique there is some way to spoof it.
    It boggles my mind that all this law enforcement is on the streets, but not where we are most vulnerable, the docks. Perhaps because its not so visable or sexy but by god that is where it should be. The same at the airports all this security in front where the people are, but what about the air freight? I am sure that the software that guides the random searches is as good as windows 2000!!
    Of course we will close the door after the horses are out. My mother and a couple of my brothers live in Cleveland a great lakes port, sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat, wondering if the phone rang and my sisters will be on the other end, with the bad news. That and our borders are where we sould be putting all these fine specimens of law enforcement. Sorry for the length and the irony.

  18. Defeatists Unite!

    Someone (keeping to my tried and tested philosophy not to criticise individuals, but merely positions—the seeds to a healthy democratic forum) mentioned whether Abu Graihv would’ve been reported without the use of digital cameras.  Certainly not.  And, yes, the US Armed Forces does have a standing order that explicitly prohibits the operation of camera phones whilst on-base.  No reason to publicise means or methods.  But, that incident is an excellent case-in-point.

    As anyone who grew up in the 1960’s or 1970’s America (i did), there was a veritable tech-messiah/mashiach:  The Video Phone!

    It’s almost here.  With the advent of VerizonWireless’ fat-f’ing digital network it’s just around the corner.  No more still images.  No more emailing pics to friends.  Just call them and show them what you see.  The mobile (video) phone will soon merge with all sorts of devices technoratis, and your mother, rely upon.  Anyone following the PocketPC market sees this as a given:  VideoPhones are coming, and are here to stay.

    Despite personal critiques:  i’m no defeatist.

    I styrongly believe in the Individual Citizen.  I believe in empowering every friggin citizen to protect their own interests.  Enter VideoPhones.

    None (none) of the incidents the crpto-luggites in this discussion cite would ever, ever, happen if you were armed with a constantly connected vid-phone/webcam/camera_phone—unless you encountered a retarded, or similiarly luddite-leaning law enforcemencent officer.

    Move you shall.

    VideoPhones are here to stay.  BZW, dampering mobile connectivity is certainly technologicaly here to stay.  But, mini-harddrives (with massive storage abilities) are also here to stay.

    Sans an EMP, there’s nothing stopping me in 10 years from recording all that happens around me.
    Like it or not, these devices shall soon be omnipresent—and for good, wise, citizen-empowering reasons.

    rob@egoz.org

    “believe”

  19. My vision unfolds, sort of…

    “From a hi-tech command center, the City of Chicago plans to monitor a vast security network. Thousands of surveillance cameras will be linked—and authorities will be alerted to crimes and terrorist acts. The mayor unveiled the plans for this new security network at a news conference this morning.”

    http://abclocal.go.com/wls/news/090904_ap_ns_camera.html

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