The War Against Photography is Growing Alongside the Use of Security Cameras


The western world was sent into a brief paranoid frenzy when whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked government information about the surveillance of the National Security Agency (NSA). I say brief, because it seems to have been forgotten by a large number of people; it seemed like it was just more news. The revelations, and more that followed, showed how the NSA record phone calls and data and more controversially; that they use information from emails and social networking sites.

1984coverA lot of critics have said that we live in a ‘Big Brother’ society; that we are being spied on and surveilled all the time. What’s being considered a breach of public privacy, both on and offline, is a suggested measure of security and counterterrorism. Some have branded this Orwellian. Others have said that Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is fiction and shouldn’t be used as an instruction manual. It does pose the question: are ‘security measures’ getting in the way of civil liberties?

For anyone who hasn’t read Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, I would recommend it – it’s an incredible book. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a dystopian novel where the world is divided into three main continents: Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia. The story follows a character in Oceania (comprised of the US and the UK) where propaganda directs which continents to hate, how to work and how to live.

Every citizen is monitored by a ‘telescreen’; a TV-camera unit in every room and every part of the street. Every move is recorded and monitored by Big Brother. All media is controlled by the government and anybody who deviates from the ideal disappears.

londonYesterday I saw a news report on Russia Today showing how Britain is the most surveilled country on earth; some calling it a Big Brother state. Reports show there is up to one security camera for every eleven people, and there are even more cameras in “high risk” zones.

The cameras are used, rather obviously, for crime prevention. Interestingly, the majority of cameras (2.7 million) are used by private businesses and individuals and there are no rules governing their use. There are over half a million cameras in the city of London and evidence is showing that cameras are being used more and more; it’s estimated that, as of 2014, $23.5 billion will be spent on cameras globally.

There a three ways you can look at this. Well, there are three ways I’m going to look at this so that I don’t freak myself out (or sound like a raging conspiracy theorist). I’ll be looking at the technological and photographic advancements involved, the legitimacy of their use and how it can affect photographers.

Looking at this from a purely technological standpoint, it’s fair to say that the cameras are becoming far more powerful than many of us realize. I’m used to seeing grainy black and white footage that seems to run at two frames per second. Newer security cameras are much more powerful. Some security cameras capture JPEG images at up to 29 megapixels or video at 30fps in 1080p.

Avigilon's powerful security camera equipped with a Canon SLR lens

Avigilon’s powerful security camera equipped with a Canon SLR lens

HDR exposure processing is also being used to process more detail in the shadowed areas of an image. Some companies even allow cameras to be fitted with Canon SLR lenses to increase their range; this is an example by aVIGILON.

It’s not just the build quality of the camera that has improved, but the software behind it as well. Algorithms I’ll never understand can be used to detect license plates, unattended bags and, more importantly faces from up to half a mile away. Andrew Rennison, a surveillance commissioner, has reported that faces can be detected with 90% accuracy.

The movie Minority Report features predictive crime-stopping

The movie Minority Report features predictive crime stopping

These advances are to be utilized by companies such as Trapwire in what is being called “predictive policing” or “Minority Report-style policing”. Predictive analytics technology aims to use social media data and security cameras to both predict and locate potential crime.

The idea is for computers to analyze real-time footage and predict disturbances. This technology is part of anti-terrorism security measures and is going to be used in the US, the UK and wider Europe.

You’d think that the increased technology in security cameras would actually be securing things. But, their effectiveness has been called to question. In 2008, only one crime was solved for every thousand cameras. Marco Malacarne, oversees Indect for the European Commission, has said: “In times of crisis or attacks, it is nearly impossible for the police to monitor all the information provided by today’s surveillance technologies”. So what’s it for? It seems dubious that the FBI is keeping it conservative when talking about predictive technologies.

The recent NSA revelations haven’t helped the West’s Big Brother image. National identity cards were scrapped some time ago as many questioned their use, cost and infringement on liberty. But you have to wonder if they’re even needed. We reported in the article ‘Pictures over Experience’ that over a billion people are on Facebook alone. That means that a sixth of planet has information and images that can easily be tracked. While those such as the NSA and Trapwire are controversially using social media information, you could consider that the Internet has become a database with which to cross-reference with security cameras.

preventingThe range and sophistication of these cameras has inevitably led to the question of privacy. If your face can be tracked from half a mile away, you could be recorded doing things you thought were private. Some people don’t care, but a lot of people don’t want people knowing their business at all times.

The problem might be that these cameras are so discrete and so ingrained in culture that they’ve fallen outside of conscious awareness. As such, the security camera only seems to work if people are aware of them – if they’re not preventing crime, are they just watching?

What worries me most though, is that these cameras are powerful and are everywhere. Craig Heffner, a former NSA software developer, has found unreported bugs in security cameras which allowed him to hack into high-security security cameras; banks, prisons and the military for instance. Governments seem less trustworthy and more prying, hacktivists and apparent terrorists get more intelligent and cameras are being proven to be ineffective deterrents – you have to ask if they’re being used for their purpose and if they themselves are secure.

I’ve heard a lot of people try to tackle the privacy issue by saying “If you’re not doing anything wrong, it doesn’t matter” to which I reply “Would it be different if there was someone holding the camera monitoring your every move?”

We featured a crude example of such a rebuttal a while ago. YouTube user SurveillantCameraMan randomly filmed people in public and private places to some mixed, often hostile reactions. He reasons that cameras are everywhere anyway. But they are; somehow it seems more intruding and suspicious when it’s held by someone and not a little box wedged six feet overhead. If every security camera had an operator behind them, what would your reaction be?

In the above video SurveillentCameraMan makes a couple of good points. He asks “well you’re not doing anything wrong are you?” and that doesn’t seem to matter to the woman. She says she’d had a “rotten day”, even though that would be caught, maybe tracked, by security cameras. Clearly, personalization of the camera makes it seem more leery.

The other point, made without tact, may resonate with street photographers, or anyone who photographs in public. The first man says: “did you know it’s illegal to come up and photograph people that don’t want to be photographed?”

In most places, it isn’t illegal to take pictures in public without permission. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t suspicious of it. There are hundreds of stories online about how public photography is being seen as a heinous act. There’s a collective fear that those with cameras could be paedophiles, perverts and terrorists – although you could be all those things sans camera.

We’ve featured a few examples of overzealous law enforcers stopping photography in public. Stretch Ledford and Carlos Miller were banned from the Metro for taking photographs; one lovely mall cop got violent with people who wouldn’t follow her orders.

There are security cameras everywhere, but worryingly, the problem comes when there’s someone holding it – either in terms of public perception or security. I find it strange that you can be monitored, almost obliviously, but you can’t photograph in a park in case you’re a paedophile, or in a business district in case you’re a terrorist.

We featured a great article about these issues addressing the “coming war on photography” and as the author says “Governments — while ever expanding their own surveillance regimes — can be extremely antagonistic to personal photography”.

policeI previously mentioned Trapwire, a company using security cameras to try and deter terrorism. Apparently, documents released by Wikileaks suggest that anyone taking pictures in high-risk areas can be logged as suspected terrorists. Imagine that when the NSA and face recognition software are thrown into the mix. Do you think Garry Winogrand would be on a watch list nowadays? Do you think you should be incriminated for taking photographs in public, while being in public means that you yourself are constantly being photographed or filmed?

Of course, security cameras have been successful in doing what they are meant to do. But when they’re regularly regarded ineffective, it seems that the sheer volume is getting excessive; maybe that’s why security hardware and software is being so fervently upgraded. But with recent discrepancies in NSA conduct it’s difficult to say what data is being used and to what means – as we’ve seen, just because it’s governmental, doesn’t mean that it’s legal.

Like I said, you can look at this situation in various ways. It seems to be a complex topic met either with support for counterterrorism or derision for the sanctity of privacy and liberty. There are a lot of ethical questions I don’t think I could philosophically answer for the whole society. But personally, I don’t like the idea of being potentially incriminated by a camera, just for using a camera.

Image credit: Security Camera by ThisParticularGreg, Watching Us Watching Them by J D Mack, over-protected by 416style, I’m a photographer, not a terrorist by gluemoon

  • jmco

    We just need to remind our *elected* leaders and law enforcement agencies that it was civilian cameras in public spaces that helped capture the Marathon bombers. Also, how is a camera any different from a sketch pad or audio recording device or, a cell phone that is used as a camera but, nobody seems to notice it?!
    In a democracy, in public spaces, you have a right to be creative and have self expression. A camera is no different than a pencil and paper. It records a visual language versus a written language.

  • Bill E. Lytton

    Never thought of it like that, such a good point. Ban the ballpoint.

  • DamianM

    SurveillantCameraMan IS trying to make a point. Thats how intrusive cameras are in public areas yet we are ok with them.

  • jmco

    Sure, I get that. SBD farts are also intrusive in public, but we endure those small anonymous farts because we live in a civilization. But if a person comes up and farts endlessly in your general direction, it is a problem and you either can walk away (what most do) or politely ask them to not fart near you as it is smelly. One quick fart, OK, but not endless farting so close!

  • Ken Jones

    SurveillentCameraMan is not making the point he thinks he is. You can get similar, if not identical, reactions from people without a camera by doing the same thing. He is overtly getting into people’s personal space. Yes, you can have personal space in a public setting. Most people will get offended if you sit at their table uninvited. Most would get offended if you stared into their RV or stand over them while they lounged on a park bench. Heck, most would take offense if you sat and stared at them from across the room. Here’s a funny take on that:

    What he is doing is offensive to most people whether or not he had a camera.

    SurveillentCameraMan uses this as an excuse to be a jerk and illicit hostile reactions. Nothing more.

  • pgb0517

    It has been said that the answer to bad speech is more speech. Maybe the same applies to photography.

  • Matthew Wagg

    We do have more cameras here in the UK than anywhere. If they start using those canon based ones, I’m gonna nick the lenses ;)

  • StevenRosas

    I see no difference in what SurveillantCameraMan is doing and what security cameras are doing. The are both filming the public…

  • Pod

    Carlos has partially beat the rap. He hasn’t updated his site with the news, but according to his FB profile he went to court last week and the judge threw out the charges that the Miami-Dade Police levied on him. Now he is pursuing the private security firm (50 State Security of North Miami FL) which assaulted him on the Metrorail.

    I’m not sure if he was banned from the Metro but I’m guessing his legal counsel told him it wasn’t a good idea to go on it while the legal battle raged.

  • Steve

    I think people are going to get used to being filmed and photographed by other people. Google glass will be everywhere soon and there will be other glasses that hide the camera. People don’t seem to have as much of a problem with mobile phones but perhaps someone with a big camera will seem less stealthy in the future? From what I read, people are going to be so busy punching people with google glass in the face, they probably wont have time for the DSLR photographers :)

  • Theranthrope

    Thank you for your informative post on how the “sausage” is made. I enjoy reading posts like yours even if most other posters here treat it as: tl;dr.

  • Guest

    The problem is with this; the vast majority of data generated by this system will never be used.
    Not ever.
    Not for solving crimes.
    Not for fighting terrorism.
    Not for any of the stated justifications; it will sit in a database in a giant semi-secret facility like the one on Provo, Ut, and sit there… and sit there… until… someday, somewhere, someone here In the U.S. of A., in a position of power, will have this vast sea of data available to discredit political enemies or undermine grass-root movements; just like Venezuela’s dictator-for-life; Hugo Chavez does on an almost daily basis.
    Like this:

  • Theranthrope

    The problem is with this; the vast majority of data generated by this system will never be used.
    Not ever.
    Not for solving crimes.
    Not for fighting terrorism.
    Not for any of the stated justifications; it will sit in a database in a giant semi-secret facility like the one on Provo, Ut, and sit there… and sit there… until… someday, somewhere, someone here In the U.S. of A., in a position of power, will have this vast sea of data available to discredit political enemies or undermine grass-root movements; just like Venezuela’s dictator-for-life; Hugo Chavez does on an almost daily basis:

  • Carsten Schlipf

    “The western world was sent into a brief paranoid frenzy when whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked
    government information about the surveillance of the National Security
    Agency (NSA). I say brief, because it seems to have been forgotten by a
    large number of people; it seemed like it was just more news.”

    I found the last sentence alarming. If you just mean the US by ‘The Western World’ this must be proof of how your media is controlled by your government. In Europe, or at least in Germany, this is still the daily #1 headline.

  • Bill E. Lytton

    I told my Mother I wanted to move to Germany and she asked why? I’ll show her this comment

  • Mike F

    Re “Google Glass”: I believe the correct term of art to describe those wearing them is “glassholes”.

  • Larry

    The difference is personal space, not the fact they’re recording. If you’re on a train and there are a handful of people in the car, how annoyed/concerned would you be if a person coming on board sat down in the seat right next to you, when there are dozens of seats available in the car?

    SCM is standing very close to his subjects. THAT’S what people are objecting to. As a previous poster said, he could get the same results by just following somebody without a camera.


    Cameras are prone to bullet damage.

  • anonymous

    All that CCTV and online tracking is merely to prevent uprisings. Dont be naive thinking that its to spot some mystical terrorists ;)

  • binak

    I’m a guy who’s name I Binak Qema England london is my life always in my heart I love London more

  • don Roberto

    Discreet, dammit. “Discreet” means “subtle.” “Discrete” means “separate or individual.” I know this is an article about pictures, not words, but please try to use the right words anyway.

    Otherwise, a great article. I’m going to have to follow some of those links.

  • canuckistan cheese

    As a broadcast news videographer I can safely say from 14 years experience that private security wanna be cops are far worse to deal with than most of the police regulars, I’ve lived in a city for 44 years to know fairly well what’s private and what’s public property. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been harassed by these jerks when I’m clearly on public property shooting an interview or b-roll. It just so happens that they take offence that the property they’re protecting is in the background. I’m serious. If you are shooting, video or stills on designated public property, towards them there is nothing they can do about it. You certainly don’t need a letter or permission from them. They are people hired by a private corporation to protect property of said corporation and nothing else. They are not there to enforce municipal, state/provincial or federal law. They have no such powers and they know it. I threaten to phone 911 if they don’t stop and they walk away.