More attempts to block public photography

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Boing Boing points to an account from a photographer who was stopped from photographing on Muni by Fare Inspectors and then by SFPD.
Officer Primiano expressed extreme frustration with me as soon as I began speaking of my rights to photograph in public places. She wanted to debate the wisdom of my taking pictures and asserted that in the wake of the Sept 11th attacks on our country, I should be more interested in aiding officials in their efforts to increase security than my rights as a citizen or journalist. Despite my calm statement of my side of the issue, Officer Primiano waved her hands in the air, stated, "This guy is really pissing me off", and walked away, leaving Officer Ryan to talk to me. Luckily he exhibited a more rational, professional demeanor.

However Officer Ryan was of the opinion that I should not be taking photographs. I explained to him that I didn't want to argue the wisdom of my taking photographs, or the efficacy of a ban on photography in the MUNI System should one exist. All I was concerned with was the legality of my actions. If I had in fact committed a crime by taking photographs, I should (and in fact wanted to) be cited under the relevant law so that I could then pursue the matter in the courts and assert my First Amendment rights. Officer Ryan told me in a very straightforward manner that he did not wish to allow me the opportunity to assert my constitutional rights in court.

After walking over to the group of Fare Inspectors and BART Police Officers, Officer Ryan returned to speak to me. He expressed his frustration at the situation and me by saying: "Would it have been so difficult for you to just stop taking photographs when these guys told you to stop? If you weren't on your soapbox, I'd be out fighting real crime rather than standing around here dealing with you." He expounded further, "Even if there is no law forbidding photography in the MUNI System, the Fare Inspectors have the right to refuse you service for any reason they choose, including taking photographs. Once they refuse you service they can swear out a citizens arrest for trespassing. I, or other officers, will book you and you'll spend the rest of your weekend in jail. It won't be for taking photographs, so your weekend would be ruined yet you'd never get a chance to argue the matter of taking photographs before a judge."

This isn't exactly the behavior I want out of my law enforcement officers. What makes it especially stupid is that there's no good reason to stop people from taking photographs of this kind of public. Yes, yes, I understand that if you wanted to mount some kind of terrorist attack on a Muni station it would be convenient to have photographs of the station for planning purposes, but consider that:

  1. The vast majority of people taking photographs are almost certainly not terrorists—because the vast majority of people are not terrorists and photography is a pretty common activity.
  2. It's fairly easy to set up surreptitious cameras so that you can film people and situations undetected. Ever see the candid photography segments on Jackass?

Whenever you're considering some security measure you have to weigh the costs against the benefits. Prohibiting this kind of public photography causes terrorists some inconvenience, but not that much inconvenience and and it would cause innocent photographers—who vastly outnumber terrorists—quite a bit of invonvenience. And that's not even counting the time that the police spend hassling innocent photographers (though that will no doubt go away when "sensitive" areas are tagged as no-photography zones).

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Educated Guesswork has posted a couple entries over the last couple days about photography being stopped in public places, the

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Eric Rescorla discusses this account: Officer Primiano expressed extreme frustration with me as soon as I began speaking of my rights to photograph in public places. She wanted to debate the wisdom of my taking pictures and asserted that... Read More

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Here's another question: is it really legal for fare inspectors to refuse service on public transport for "any reason they choose?"

I'm curious as to which of the following statements you disagree with:

1) If a group of Middle-Eastern-looking men speaking Arabic are spotted meticulously photographing train stations in San Francisco, then the police should at least make sure to find out who they are.

2) If the police were to treat a group of Middle-Eastern-looking men speaking Arabic any differently from the photographer and his wife in the story you linked to, then they would be practicing unacceptable racial/ethnic profiling.

3) If the police were to demand ID--in a pressing manner, if refused--from a man and his wife behaving in a perfectly legal way at a San Francisco train station, then their actions would amount to police harassment.

4) Photographing train stations should not be illegal.

It seems to me to be difficult to agree with all of these statements simultaneously, while being consistent--although perhaps I've missed something. (For the record, I disagree strongly with (3), and mildly, in certain ways, with (2).)

I'm not sure I see the relevance of this set of questions. The police didn't merely ask for ID: they informed the man in question that photography was illegal.

Well, my thinking went roughly like this: if it had been a group of Middle-Eastern men photographing the train station, I'd at least want the police to be able to find out who they are. The problem is that I've heard plenty of civil libertarians complain both about the police treating groups of Middle-Eastern men differently from completely nondescript Americans, and about the police insisting that completely nondescript Americans, behaving innocently, show them ID.

Until now, there was still a way out--we could allow the police to distinguish between photographing train stations and behaving innocently. But now I've heard complaints about that, as well. It seemed to me that at least one of these complaints (including my original one) had to be rejected. I was just curious as to which one you'd choose.

I gather, based on your response, that you actually agree with me--that is, that you consider police demanding ID from people not breaking any laws to be less objectionable than any of the other cases I listed. Is that correct?

Dan: for me, (1) is the disagreeable statement there. It assumes there is some sort of terrorist threat to the rail system in the US, the preparation for which would be helped by photos of stations. There isn't. As was recently shown, attacking the rail system is as easy as parking a car on the line. The lack of any terrorist attacks in the US shows not that security is working - it isn't - but that no attacks are being made.

Of course, this brings up the question:

Could I make a T-shirt and hat saying "This shirt is copyright 2005 by Nicholas C Weaver. Any reproduction in any form is strictly prohibited", and then sue anyone who phographs me for copyright infringement? Any one who trains a closed circuit TV camera on me?

It assumes there is some sort of terrorist threat to the rail system in the US, the preparation for which would be helped by photos of stations. There isn't.

Oddly enough, there appear to be some folks in Iran who disagree with you. Perhaps you should contact them and explain why they're so laughably mistaken?

Technically speaking, there are some folks in the US who claim that there are folks in Iran who disagree with Pete. As I read that article, the Iranians deny it.

Analyze the threat model:

Goal: prevent intel gathering from terrorists.

Technique: Ban overt picture taking.

Success? None. A terrorist can buy a digital camera for $80 that fits in a Zippo lighter case: ( )

A terrorist's cellphone can have a camera (cameraphones aren't banned). It takes a fraction of a second to take a bad photo, and a bad photo is all thats needed for reconnisance.

A terrorist can put his nice Cannon Digital SLR in a backpack with a window in it.

Thus, effect on terrorist activity? None. Zero. Zilch.

Effect on the normal public citizens and press ability to monitor the behavior of a public service? Considerable.

Nick, I think you underestimate the level of surveillance that a terrorist would find useful. If one were to attempt, say, a Madrid-style chain of train station bombings, with a view to maximizing casualties, it would be helpful to understand the entire physical structure of each station, as well as the pattern of traffic (human and vehicle), so as to optimize the placement, timing and strength of bombs. Such understanding requires repeated, detailed surveillance--"a bad photo" likely wouldn't be of much use.

Your point about the value to other people of being able to take photographs of (or simply in) train stations is well taken, though. That's why I suggested that a preferable approach to outright bans on these sorts of behaviors would be to entitle the police to demand identification from people engaging in them. At least that way, they'd be able to do follow-up investigations in cases of, for instance, suspicious-looking photographers in train stations.

OK, lets suppose I want extensive survelance, and I have 2-5 people.

You think that my cameras would be visible to the cops? THat I couldn't be using micro-sized digital cameras? Heck, the one I posted can take timelapse: Stick a few in corners, walls, etc with some junk camo, come back the next day. Nice, 24 hour views of the entire operation.

As a terrorist, I'd PREFER a "no camera" attitude, after all, it reflects erroding peoples confidence in government, adds to the state of fear, and everytihng else.

And just human walking through is probably sufficient, combined with cell-cam photos, to get enough survelance to do all the madrid-style attacks a terrorist could want.

And this case wasn't ABOUT the police asking questions: it was a blanket denial which would be of zero use to terrorists.

There is a huge difference between Officer Friendly coming up and asking a couple of questions: nonconfrontational, non-constitution-infringing, and far MORE effective (which is what you seem to be advocating, and I agree with in general on anything 'hinky'), then what was described: Officer Arse saying "No Pictures!".

The thing I found upsetting about the story was a lot more basic. Everyone seemed to agree that there was no law or rule written anywhere saying no pictures, but the police felt like it was okay to demand that no pictures be taken anyway, and to threaten to harass the photographer in sufficiently nasty ways to make sure their demands were met. I think this approach to law enforcement is a bad one, even when its goal is worthwhile.

I am pretty doubtful about the usefulness of a no-pictures-in-train-station rule, too. But it's even worse if the rule isn't written anywhere, isn't formally stated, but is still enforced through police harassment.

--John Kelsey

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