Thursday, April 11, 2013

On Photography - Eyes In Skies

There is a scene in Ridley Scott's 1982 movie Blade Runner which goes something like this:

Deckard: (pretending to be from the American Federation of Variety ArtistsConfidential Committee On Moral Abuses)  Oh yeah. I'd like to check your dressing room if I may.
Zhora: For what?
Deckard: For, uh, for holes.
Zhora:  Holes?
Deckard:  You'd be surprised what a guy would go through to get a glimpse of a beautiful body.
Zhora: No, I wouldn't.

Although it seems a little redundant to say so, the AustralianOffice of The Information Commissioner says there is a high level of community awareness of the use of surveillance cameras in our public places.

Former Assistant Privacy Commissioner Mark Hummerston says it is difficult to offer a single, consolidated figure of the number of surveillance cameras in Australia.  There are already 53 fixed surveillance cameras and 2 mobile camera-equipped vans operating in public places in central Melbourne alone.  Last year the Victorian State Government offered Melbourne local councils three million dollars to install more. At 30,000 dollars each, that’s an extra 100 to add to the unknown quantities already installed in public places.

The Australian Lawyers Alliance told ABC news last year “There’s a study out of the UK which shows, certainly in London, surveillance cameras have been responsible for solving one crime for every thousand cameras.” The Victorian Government recently ordered Victoria Police to audit the number and type of surveillance cameras in the State.

Despite Australian national privacy principles requiring that, where practicable, consumers must have the option to transact anonymously, every Melbourne taxi, automatic teller machine, train, tram, bus is camera equipped and many retailers photograph their customers. The Office of The Information Commissioner says concerns about surveillance cameras include misuse of stored photographs or videos, loss of anonymity, discomfort about being watched and the effectiveness of surveillance cameras achieving  their stated goal of crime prevention. Around eighty percent of people responding to surveys about surveillance cameras expressed no concerns about them at all. Five percent were 'very concerned.'

Last year the Melbourne Age newspaper bemoaned the spread of surveillance cameras as undermining “the sense of liberty that is part of the fabric of this city and this nation” (Saturday Age Editorial September 29 2012)  Brenna Krenus wrote a few days later that more cameras: “will not engender feelings of safety: they will heighten feelings of fear” (The Age October 2 2012).

Despite their ubiquity surveillance cameras do not unexpectedly present “an intentional intrusion (whether physical or otherwise) upon the situation of another (whether as to the person or his or her personal affairs) where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy; and the intrusion would be highly offensive to a reasonable person of ordinary sensibilities” (D Butler '(2005)'A Tort of Invasion of Privacy in Australia?’  Melbourne University Law Review 11)

What does present as intrusive, invasive and unexpected is a new generation of cheap, lightweight airborne cameras mounted on surveillance drones. There is a good example of their capabilities here on youtube

ABC journalist Mark Corcoran told the Sydney Morning Herald "The day is fast approaching where the small personal drone will be an obligatory part of the tool box for journalists, photographers and bloggers"

The Australian Privacy Foundation worried that Kate Middleton “and many other people besides can rest assured that their bare breasts are fair game, anywhere, any time,” after Australian Woman's Day published candid photographs of the pregnant Duchess in a bikini. It is legal to operate a remotely piloted drone in Australia below four hundred feet for non commercial purposes.  In Victoria it is illegal to knowingly use an ‘optical surveillance device’  to record a private activity without consent.

Anxieties about surveillance technologies are often expressed in the same vein as general concerns about photography: a potential loss of anonymity, discomfort about the photographic ‘gaze’, misuse, for example through publication, and the offensiveness of the images themselves. In one notorious case photographs of a dead child were obtained from a helicopter and published without the family’s knowledge.

The grieving parents wrote:

"We are not arguing the fact that the media have an important role to play, what we want is the media acting in a responsible, sensitive and ethical manner for grieving families such as ours and many others...At the time of Molly's loss of life we would have greatly appreciated the opportunity to share with the media in our own time and in our own words the story of her life

As if to confirm the worst of general anxieties about photography, so-called ‘body scanners’,  cameras that see through clothes to the naked human body, are installed at eight Australian airports.

The Australian Government says The current generation body scanner is equipped with automatic threat recognition technology. This removes the need for screening officers to view detailed or ‘naked’ images and instead highlights areas of concern on a generic ‘stick’ figure. In addition, the body scanner is not able to store personal information about passengers or the screen display generated from individual scans.

The previous post on this topic is here

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