November 30, 2004

Camcorders as Security Threats: Have the Terrorists Already Won?

Steve Rosenbaum breaking the law in the New York City subways. Courtesy of Steve Rosenbaum

Slowly the signs are going up. I saw the first one a few weeks ago. It said, "Due to new security regulations, there is no use of camcorders or cameraphones at this location." I was getting my driver's license renewed at DMV.

The signs are at tunnels, bridges, nightclubs, the Subway. Lots of places that were thought of as "public" in past years.

Somehow, using a video camera to record The Strip in Las Vegas can be construed as a terrorist surveillance.

While these concerns are understandable, the result is a direct threat to what we all do. If observing the world is "documenting," and documentation can be perceived as surveillance, then the very lifeblood of a documentary filmmaker is in some jeopardy.

We've faced this before, of course. The balance between liberty and privacy has always been in question. In past years, as film equipment has become more ubiquitous, the limits of our ability to record the world around us has slowly become more intense. Hospitals cite privacy concerns and now limit crews at the front door. Shopping malls rush to bar the door if film crews arrive, determined to protect the commercial rights of their tenants. Nightclubs that cater to celebrities don't want pictures taken. Rock concerts are commercial endeavors, and music isn't free. Professional sporting events are off limits, as are courthouses, busses, airports and anywhere with a metal detector.

And while in the past we've been able to hire lawyers and defend our rights under the First Amendment, it seems that the issues of safety and security trump any rights of free expression or critical review.

If you're not sure things have changed, try an experiment. Find a building that's being guarded by a soldier with a rifle slung over his shoulder. It's probably a courthouse, a federal building, a bank, a power plant or a telephone building.

Now walk up and begin to record with your video camera. This is a public place, visible to the naked eye, with no Defense Department barbed wire or special military security. You'll be approached quickly, and you'll be sternly told, "No pictures." When you ask why, the interaction will become far more threatening, and the implication will be that you are moments away from arrest. Why? Because terrorists can use these pictures to plan an attack.

True enough.

But families on vacation can use theme images to record the beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Grand Canyon. Grandparents can use these images to remember a sunny day with their grandchildren on the steps of the New York Public Library.

Filmmakers can use these images to make films about America facing terrorism by limiting freedoms. And that's an appropriate area for debate and discussion.

Filmmakers are not the enemy. Filmmakers are practicing America's hard-fought and beloved practice of public discourse and debate. It's the bedrock of all our freedoms. And while policies of limiting public photography may seem sensible in the abstract (the Empire State Building, the Hoover Dam, the Washington Monument, the Statue of Liberty), the result of silencing our right to explore the world has dire consequences.

Free speech and free photography are linked rights in this increasingly visual society. It's about time we start questioning the limitation of these rights—before it's a foregone conclusion.

 

Steve Rosenbaum can be reached at steve.rosenbaum@CameraPlanet.com.

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