Monday, June 27, 2005

Where can you be surveilled? Pretty much everywhere, it seems

Here's one to watch: In Conroe, TX, prosecutors are seeking an indictment against a dry cleaner for positioning a hidden surveillance camera to view the toilet area in the employee restroom, according to the June 23rd Houston Chronicle.

"Police must prove Blackwelder taped the employees without their consent and knowledge and must also show that he did it with intent to arouse and gratify," reported the Chronicle. Judging from the facts relayed in the article, intent will be hard to prove. If the store owner claims he made the video to prevent employee theft, for example, and the prosecution can't prove otherwise, what he did may not have been illegal. So far, the store owner has not been arrested. (Via the
Open Society Paradox)

The ambiguity regarding video voyeurism is a byproduct of the reduction of Americans' "reasonable expectation of privacy" by the courts in
deference to law enforcement. In May, a man in Houston was caught taking an upskirt photo of a child in a mall; his camera was seized, but he could not be arrested. You see, the child had no "reasonable expectation of privacy" to prevent people from using technology to view any area visible from someplace they have a legal right to be, like bending down pretending to tie their shoe next to the check out counter in the mall. Those precedents were all set in cases where the Supreme Court was defining the limits of police surveillance, but applied generally, they obviously create a world of concern for anyone who respects even a minimalist zone of personal privacy in public spaces.

The whole idea that being "tough on crime" means it's wise to give police unfettered surveillance power is starting to have some unintended consequences, don't you think? Redefining the "reasonable expectation of privacy" to create more personal space in public is an area ripe for state legislation. The legal precedents were recently confirmed, and may take decades for the federal courts to get around to changing.

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