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Posted by on Mar 11, 2011 in Guest Contributor, Law, Media, Science & Technology, Society | 0 comments

‘Attention: The Following Disaster is Being Recorded’

In my youth, it was popular to say, “The revolution will be televised.” At that time, it seemed magical that we could witness unrest in countries from around the globe almost in real time, not to mention videotape of riots and demonstrations here in the states.

The technology of recording video at the time was laughably primitive. The professional grade video recording equipment may have been “portable” in the grossest sense of the word, but it was still bulky and was awkward to handle. More importantly, home videotape recording equipment was in its infancy and few thought to walk around with a video camera hoping to catch history as it happened.

Perhaps the shocking video of Rodney King being beaten by LA police officers was a seminal moment in history. It was purely by accident that a citizen witnessed the confrontation, was able to grab his home video camera, and in just a few minutes of recording, impact politics, race relations, and history itself in such a way. People still weren’t walking around town and putting themselves in position to capture the moment as it happened. But the potential to do so was there when technology would be able to catch up with history.

Welcome to the future. As we sit glued to our TV’s watching the disaster unfold in Japan and elsewhere, I am struck by the quantity and quality of video that is streaming on TV networks, websites, and an iPhone near you. Truly remarkable, frightening, wrenching images all brought to us largely by cellphone and flip cameras so small they can fit in your shirt pocket.

No one consciously walks around waiting for history to unfold so they can record it. People turn from being spectators of history to chronicling events in the blink of an eye. It is one of the most remarkable, consequential, and, in the end, frightening developments in my lifetime. Historians 500 years from now will be reviewing videos of the various uprisings, disasters, accidents, and probably the foolishness that has been and will be recorded by the omnipresent, all seeing eye of the video camera. It will give them background and context to events that historians from generations prior to the advent of this technology were denied. Will it color their findings in any way? I wonder.

You might ask why this is frightening? The ubiquitousness of this technology when combined with the human frailties inbred in all of us, threatens our personal space in a way that no other technological development in history has been able to do. Government has sophisticated surveillance devices that could easily threaten our privacy if the microphone would be pointed our way. But it is unlikely that the Justice Department would post any videos of you committing crimes (or no) to YouTube, U-Stream, or other video sharing sites. However, your nosy neighbor could take a stealth video of you sunning nude in your backyard and it could go viral before the day was out.

Other, more sinister uses for this great leap forward in telecommunications could easily be imagined. The only thing that constrains the misuse of this technology is the individual’s personal ethics. As usual, the law is behind the curve in catching up to the impact of new technology on our liberty. But since this is, in a very real sense, personal technology and thus, an extension of our own freedom, how can the law deal with the use of private video recordings violating the personal space of someone without impinging on rights like freedom of expression? There are already laws on the books that prohibit some violations of our personal space, but not everything can be foreseen when writing such laws and it is possible that some scenarios would slip through the cracks.

Perhaps it would be helpful to redefine privacy. In an age when your neighbor is as much of a threat to your privacy as the government, we may need broader definitions of what personal space is. This would cover not only cell phone cameras but also security cameras. red light cameras, and other surveillance devices that are proliferating at an alarming rate in cities around the world. It’s bad enough that the state can mail you a ticket for running a red light. But surveilling citizens who have done nothing wrong and present no evidence that they are about to do wrong throws the entire notion of innocent until proven guilty, not to mention “just cause” on its head.

At some point, a clarifying moment will occur and we’ll have a serious discussion of these and other issues regarding the right to privacy. If we are going to err – and that is very likely considering we are all human and prone to it – we should err on the side of more privacy and less intrusion. That goes for both the gargantuan state using awesome technologies to watch our every move and our nosy neighbor armed with a flip camera.