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Photographers Are NOT Terrorists

Dec 19, 20104 mins
CamerasCybercrimeData and Information Security

If you plan to be out-and-about in public with a camera, or give a camera as a gift, know a photographer's rights. Even in this fear-filled world where everything might be considered suspicious activity, remember...being a photographer is not equal to being a terrorist and photography is not a crime.

If you plan to be out-and-about in public with a camera to attend a parade, visit a park or shopping mall, travel and snap a shot of a state sign, or photograph holiday decoration displays, hopefully you will not be harassed by people who see your actions as suspicious activity. Remember, being a photographer is not equal to being a terrorist and photography is not a crime.

In our post 9/11 world, a camera is regarded by some people to be weapon when wielded in public. Too often, photographers are treated like criminals or worse — as terrorists. In most instances, you are legally allowed to take photos in public places such as streets, sidewalks and public parks. Security guards most often confront photographers even if there is not a specific legal statute or ordinance prohibiting photography.

According to the Photographer’s Right, “Despite misconceptions to the contrary, the following subjects can almost always be photographed lawfully from public places: accident and fire scenes, children, celebrities, bridges and other infrastructure, residential and commercial buildings, industrial facilities and public utilities, transportation facilities (e.g., airports), Superfund sites, criminal activities, law enforcement officers.”

However, the right to take photographs seems at war with attempts to restrict photography. The Homeland Security Bureau of the Miami-Dada Police Department published a “Terrorist Awareness Guide” advising citizens to watch out for and report “inappropriate photographs or videos.”

An excerpt states: “Maybe you are at a National Monument and you notice a person nearby taking a lot of photos. Not unusual. But then you notice that he is only taking photos of the surveillance cameras, crash barriers at the entrances, and access control procedures. Is that normal for a tourist? Absolutely not!

The following should cause a heightened sense of concern:

•       Unusual interest

•       Surveillance

•       Inappropriate photographs or videos

•       Note-taking

•       Drawing of diagrams

•       Annotating maps

•       Using binoculars or night vision devices

Despite the New York ACLU settlement that ended restrictions of photography outside all federal buildings, when DHS agreed to inform its officers with written memos that photography of federal buildings is legal, photographers can still manage to get kicked out of just about everywhere. It’s not just security guards, but police and park rangers too. Photographers have been harassed even while shooting dancers doing backflips in a public park. A BP security guard followed a photographer for capturing the image of a Texas state sign and then the police and Homeland Security threatened and detained him. The NYPD handcuffed the Railfan & Railroad Magazine editor for photographing the Transit Museum’s historic train. There are too many more ridiculous arrests or harassments posted in the discussions of photography is not a crime Flickr group and on Pixiq by Carlos Miller.

To some people, our world has become full of one giant suspicious activity after another with nothing but fear and terrorists. So much so that security guru Bruce Schneier posted an essay called, Close the Washington Monument.  In it, he wrote, The empty monument would symbolize our war on the unexpected, — our overreaction to anything different or unusual — our harassment of photographers, and our probing of airline passengers. It would symbolize our “show me your papers” society, rife with ID checks and security cameras. As long as we’re willing to sacrifice essential liberties for a little temporary safety, we should keep the Washington Monument empty.”

Although it is sad that you might have to, it would perhaps be wise to print out, fold up, and carry the Photographer’s Rights with you. It would also be a good idea to include those rights if you are giving a camera as a gift to someone this year.

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.