Beware the Coming War Against Personal Photography and Video


Are you ready for the imagery war — the war against personal photography and capturing of video? You’d better be.

The title of this piece actually isn’t entirely accurate. In some ways, this war isn’t just coming, it’s already begun. Forces are lining up on both sides, under the radar for most of us so far, but preparing for action. And right now, if I had to place a bet (cash, not bitcoins, please), I’d reluctantly have to predict the anti-imagery folks have the better chance of winning.

There are many facets to this struggle, and they interact in complicated and sometimes even seemingly contradictory ways. It’s largely a battle pitting technology against a range of personal sensibilities — and politics will be playing an enormous role.

And please note the following well — if we techies attempt to argue that no significant relevant issues actually exist, if we are perceived to be arrogant in our reactions to the various concerns being expressed, we are likely to be steamrolled by the opposition.

I said there were contradictory forces in play, and man, do I mean it.


In the aftermath of the Boston bombings — cameras were everywhere there — which while horrendous and tragic, killed and injured fewer people than just a few days of “routine” gun violence here in the USA, we’re hearing the predictable calls for vastly expanded government-operated video surveillance networks, even though virtually every study shows that while these systems may be useful in solving crimes after the fact, they are of little to no use in preventing crime or terrorism in the first place. This has proven true even in cities like London, where there’s a camera focused on pretty much every individual pimple on each Londoner’s face.

In some cities, like New York, the surveillance-industrial complex has its fangs deeply into government for the big bucks. It’s there we heard the Police Commissioner — just hours ago, really — claim that “privacy is off the table.”

And of course, there’s the rise of wearable cameras and microphones by law enforcement, generally bringing praise from people who assume they will reduce police misconduct, but also dangerously ignoring a host of critical questions.

Will officers be able to choose when the video is running? How will the video be protected from tampering? How long will it be archived? Can it be demanded by courts? Divorce lawyers? Insurance companies? Can it be enhanced and used to trigger prosecutions of new crimes, perhaps based on items in private homes captured on video when officers enter? What will be the penalties when clips of these videos, often involving people in personal situations of high drama and embarrassment, often through no fault of their own, leak onto video sharing sites?

All of this and more is the gung-ho, government surveillance side of the equation.


But what about the personal photography and video side? What of individual or corporate use of these technologies in public and private spaces?

Will the same politicians promoting government surveillance in all its glory take a similar stance toward nongovernmental applications?

Writing already on the wall suggests not.

Inklings of the battles to come are already visible, if you know where to look.

The push-backs against Google Street View — more pronounced outside the USA to date but always simmering in the background — are one obvious example. Even though this imagery is captured either from public thoroughfares or with explicit permission, this extremely useful service has generated considerable angst, and even though the concerns are way overblown, we can’t deny the angst itself is real and of political note.

An ironic side note. People not infrequently send me emails asking if I can tell them how to have their homes removed from Street View. I point them at the established procedure, but I always mention that having a gap in the imagery where your home should be is more likely to attract attention to it than anything else. That never seems to dissuade them, however. We’re dealing with emotion, not logic.


Governments — while ever expanding their own surveillance regimes — can be extremely antagonistic to personal photography.

Only recently has a broad right for individuals to record police activities in public places been established by courts, and trying to exercise that right can still net you a club across the face and a trip to a cell. Individuals are routinely harassed when taking hobby photos of railroads, or bridges, or storefronts — or pretty much anything these days, based on asserted (but generally unsupportable) security or privacy grounds.

Anti-paparazzi laws restricting personal photography have begun appearing, as have a variety of laws aimed at the perverted practice of “upskirting” — both classes of laws often subject to much broader interpretation by overzealous authorities.

Laws have been proposed restricting aerial photography in general, and drone-based video capture in particular (the latter already seeing considerable political traction).

And as an outgrowth of parental concerns (particularly regarding third-party Internet postings of associated still and video photography) there are efforts underway to restrict public photography of children by other than their parents — in a wide variety of public locales — a topic with a particularly powerful influence on politicians, we should remember.


Laymen often assume that if you’re in a public place, you can legally do pretty much whatever you want in these sorts of contexts.

But that’s not always true, and is subject to the whims of our increasingly toxic political environment.

For example, many people believe that you can legally, secretly record conversations in public. But this varies state by state. In California, for example, under most circumstances you cannot legally record a conversation, even in public settings, unless all parties to the conversation agree. This holds true regardless of the recording medium — anything from an old tape machine to the latest wearable video device.

This holds true in mobile environments like personal cars as well, though governmental regulatory focus in that respect is more likely to be aimed initially at perceived cognitive distraction issues.

At the federal level, there is already a concerted push to tightly regulate both handheld and hands-free devices, with a special emphasis on any devices in the visual field that can be used for texting, display of movies, or pretty much anything else. The irony here is that while one could argue that, for example, a wearable GPS mapping display would be less distracting than glancing over at a dash-mounted screen, the capabilities of these devices to engage in a broad range of other potentially more distracting activities will likely attract the attention of insurance companies and regulators (this is actually already a topic of discussion among both groups).


There is in fact something of a possible worst case scenario that we would be foolish to ignore. While techies and many others will be enamored with and responsible in their use of wearable video/audio gear like Google Glass, the potential exists for this class of technology in mass deployment to trigger significant political and regulatory backlash that could negatively affect other types of photography as well — everything from expensive cameras to the image capturing capabilities of cellphones.

To understand this risk we must remember that politicians generally take the path of least resistance with the highest “CYA” potential.

While spy-cams and other similar tech have long existed, the widespread availability of wearable gear outside that context (note we’re not talking only about Google Glass, but the inevitable cheap knock-offs that will not meet Google standards) could, for example, trigger nervous parents’ worst fears.

There will be a significant percentage of the population — including in stores, restaurants, other businesses, or wherever, who will be concerned that in the restroom, or the gym, or the strategy meeting, or wherever, that they just aren’t sure that the guy with the glasses isn’t actually recording or streaming at that moment. People who have heard stories of malware accessing webcams without lighting the activity lights may never quite trust such signals again.

One would hope that politeness, common sense, and evolving voluntary social conventions would deal with these issues appropriately, reducing the pressure for governmental involvement.

But again, we’re dealing here with emotion more than logic, and emotion makes laws. Bad laws usually, but laws nonetheless. And laws are often written with the minority of people who are bad actors in mind, not the bulk of reasonable folks.

We all still end up having to live with these laws, in any case.

I don’t have a “magic wand” solution for this situation.

My gut feeling though is that we’d be making an enormous mistake by appearing arrogant about these matters.


Already, in various venues where enthusiastic supporters of such technology gather, the primary attitude most visibly espoused has been to dismiss those persons expressing concerns about these technologies as being “out of touch” or easily ignored or beneath contempt.

If you really want to have politicians and regulators come down like a ton of bricks not only on this technology, but on other aspects of personal photography as well, then by all means continue with that demeanor.

On the other hand, if you’d prefer a more beneficial outcome all around, I’d strongly urge putting aside any arrogance, and instead working with others to engage politicians and regulators in reasoned, logical discussions that actually address their concerns (whether we personally feel that those concerns are valid or not) in a cooperative way. Otherwise, we’re likely setting ourselves up for a big fall.

It would be ironic indeed if in the war against personal photography and video, those of us wanting the maximal possible photographic freedom allowed our own swagger to effectively point our own “weapons” at our own heads.

About the author: Lauren Weinstein is a technology systems and policy analyst based in Los Angeles. He focuses on issues related to the Internet, privacy, and the interaction of technology with society. Visit his website here. This article originally appeared here.

Image credits: Street photographer by Hugo Bernard, cameras everywhere by ☻☺, Police filming students during the anti-cuts demonstration in London 26.3.2011 by Cleaner Croydon, war photographer by Giorgio Montersino, Google Glass @1776dc 23292 by tedeytan, Street corner photographers by Bill Selak

  • Brett

    Totally agree with the sentiment of the article – I’ve seen my own right to take photos (even in public) curtailed while the government’s has vastly expanded – don’t forget that photography is a constitutional right akin to speech:

    That gives a layer of protection which, while not iron-clad (see “first-amendment zones”), can help keep the silliest of laws off the table.

  • Scott Stuart

    Wait a minute…Google has standards??

  • KE

    I long ago put some gaffers tape on my computer and ipad front facing camera.

  • Dave Reynolds

    This is probably the most intelligent, well-written, balanced and useful update PetaPixel has posted. More like this and less of the inane topical posts with exaggerated titles.

  • pvbella

    Laws and enforcement? How about a bouncer on a public street ordering you to stop taking pictures of “his” establishment. Then, when you ignore him, he puts his hands on you and tells you to “Wait right here”. He did not like it when I told him to go eff his mother and if he ever put his hands on me again it would take ten psychiatrists and twenty years to put his mind back together. When the cops came they told him he was lucky I was such a nice guy.

  • Eduardo Cervantes Pérez

    I think the entire camera industry should start an all-in-one campaign to lobby at government regulatory instances. If the fire gun industry can totally get away with the killing of thousands of innocent people every year, the photo-video industry should take this approach.

  • Jakub Markiewicz

    You can’t forget that agencies employed by the government (i.e. RCMP) somehow manage to get away scott-free from, in many ways, breaking the law that they are supposed to be protecting. *Ahem* Look at my name and do a Google search *Ahem*

  • Vlad Dusil

    “One would hope that politeness, common sense, and evolving voluntary social conventions would deal with these issues appropriately, reducing the pressure for governmental involvement.”

    That about sums it up for me. Be a nice guy, smile, ask for permission and shoot away. Other than that I can’t be bothered with politics in particular, or people who get their pants bunched up over silly stuff.

  • Mako Koiwai

    I didn’t think the Walmart patrons were that organized? :-)

  • Gerj

    and some american morons will tell you they are proud to live in the land of the free.
    that is a good joke.
    actually american are less free then most europeans… but they are to blind to see behind their narrow horizon.


  • Jackson Cheese

    10 years ago I would have written you have as a paranoid crazy person.
    I’m so sure now.

  • ennuipoet

    There is a certain irony in how so many people are giving away their private information and images to companies like Facebook while this kind of fight is taking place. People want Google Street view images of their home blurred while posting Instagrams of their kids playing in front of the same house.

    I carry copies of the local laws and police directives in my bag when shooting, and when confronted I politely produce them. Only in one instance with a security guard were my documents ignored, and I simply moved to different location and completed my shots. I am more than willing to fight for my rights, but I strive to do so in the least confrontational manner possible.

  • Mansgame

    If people would use common sense and not be jerks, none of this would happen. Why is photography being banned in public places in some areas? Because some jerk photographer was hell bent on putting his camera in a stranger’s face and take his picture without asking and acting like a bigger jerk when asked to delete it. “IT’S MY RIGHT TO DO IT!” Well, after enough abuses, that right is taken away.

  • Dan Forsley

    I’m not sure why but this article got me thinking about how and why Amazon finally succumbed to pressure and to collect state sales tax from all its shoppers……in every state.

    The party is finally over for saving gazillions of dollars by buying on Amazon! And the party will someday also come to an end for Americans who think they can record video at will.

    I see much less freedom coming down the road.

  • Vlad Dusil


  • Keith Goldstein

    “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose”

    – Kris Kristofferson

  • pvbella

    No one has the right to ask or tell you to delete a photo. I would never do it and fight private citizen who tried to force me. Nice guys finish last.

  • mrbeard

    google glass and its derivatives scare me, once it goes mainstream everything will change

  • Steve

    I don’t think there will be much done to stop people taking photos and making videos in public places because that makes countries like North Korea. Some people might want that but there will allways be a backlash in countries that have genuine freedoms.

  • Mansgame

    Well you are part of the problem then. Morally, you have little “right” to take a picture of someone who doesn’t want to be photographed. It’s impolite and an invasion of the privacy. Your only argument is that “it’s the law”. Now that the laws are changing, what’s going to be your argument, tough guy?

    I’ve had photo jobs where someone in the background didn’t want their picture. Sure, I could argue with them and say “it’s my right” but out of common courtesy, I deleted the photo and was done with it.

  • KE

    Thats what all my friends used to say to me…I was in college at the time and sitting in lecture people thought I was insane!

  • pvbella

    There is no privacy in public spaces.

  • Neoracer Xox

    You might have to argue your case AFTER you have been arrested, tased or mall cop’d but yea its true..

  • Stan B.

    No doubt there are plenty of inconsiderate jerks out there who could learn to be more civil- but giving your rights away piecemeal sure ain’t the answer…

  • Theranthrope

    In the long term, presumably after eliminating the “fire gun industry” are you going to go after the “stab knife industry”, then “bludgeon club industry”, “beating fist industry”, “shock lightning industry”, “bite shark industry”, ect, to prevent people from dying in unapproved ways?
    Sue all-the-things that can hurt people; ergo: immortality via vexatiousness?
    …sounds legit.

  • Theranthrope

    “Well, after enough abuses, that right is taken away.”

    Wow. You don’t actually know what a “right” is at all.

  • betsumei

    and we will lose our city documentation day by day :(

  • Pete Charlesworth

    Agree with all but the notion of laws being a confab of emotions – which is not true at all. Laws are created through law making based on precedents and risk management (limitation of liability is what you are quantifying as emotional knee-jerks). Either way, common sense is the best approach – taking and making images with consent where as a photographer you put your motivation for creating media as a priority ahead of what might otherwise be in anthers best interest is what is truly being eroded. Weirdo photographers have had it way too good for way too long – paps being at the pointy end. Again common sense will prevail with time. Good article though.

  • StanleyG

    Those who wish to oppress are more afraid of cameras than guns.

  • Thanassi Karageorgiou

    whoa dude. Just saw the news story on you. Messed up.

  • Jude I⚡caяiot

    Yep, I have masking tape over my webcam on my laptop and my work laptop.

  • OakenTruncheon

    Politics is not the cause, proximate or otherwise, but the expression, and negotiation, of differing interests, and perceptions.

  • OakenTruncheon

    I pity the poor bastard suffering the on-going view from my built-in webcam.

  • Sosofifiaa

    When you step out of your home you’re entering the public place, so you enter my life, and I have the free-speech right to take a pic of you when you’re walking in the public space I’m also walking in, because *you* entered *my* public space. You can stay at your home if you don’t want to be photographed.

  • John Masters

    When cameras are outlawed…. only outlaws will have cameras!

  • John Masters

    Are you living under a rock? Or are you so wealthy and privileged that you believe the world is fair and just? To us lesser mortals, we know that having a right will not stop a cop from shooting you… another brown child was Zimmermanned this week.

  • John Masters

    Vote up for Kris!
    Too bad that we elect short-sighted poloticos to make our laws. No wonder the only laws that passed are ones where a few million dollars of “political contributions” preceded the vote.

  • John Masters

    No. Law comes from wealth. Money is power, corporations are people and corporations have rights that are denied to minorities.
    Law serves the wealthy. Recall the golden rule: “He who has the gold makes the rules.”
    See: “Citizen’s United”