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Private Eyes

Are videophones turning us into Big Brother?

December 5, 2006

When a teenage girl at a Gatineau, Que., school used her camera phone to film a teacher yelling at her friend, neither student nor teacher could have predicted the story would make headlines across North America a month later.

But two weeks ago the school board announced they were banning mobile devices after discovering the girls had provoked the incident and posted it on the popular video sharing site YouTube, causing the teacher to go on stress leave.

The incident attracted attention in part because of timing: it came in the same week comedian Michael Richards, best known for his role as Kramer on the television show Seinfeld, made a public apology after a video of him responding to hecklers with a racist tirade in a comedy club appeared on an entertainment website.

Since its popularization at the turn of the last century, the camera has inspired anxiety in those who felt seeing their likeness on film was akin to the theft of the soul. While such notions seem quaint by today's standards, the advent and proliferation of mobile video phones have made a new kind of theft relevant in today's age of information: The loss of reputation.

Beyond embarrassing the individuals captured on video, both incidents also present a new issue for privacy experts in this country and paint a new face on the stereotype of Big Brother, the omniscient power in George Orwell's 1984. Mobile phone images have also moved into the mainstream, with Yahoo and Reuters launching on Tuesday a new initiative aimed at encouraging citizen photographers to send their photos and videos.

"This is looking out and saying, 'What if everybody in the world were my stringers?'" Reuters media group president Chris Ahearn told the New York Times.

A troubling question

It also leads to a troubling question: As access to video recording equipment such as camera-equipped cellphones becomes mainstream, are we ourselves becoming willing participants in a surveillance society?

Privacy experts say individual use of video cameras can't be equated to surveillance just yet. David Lyon, the research director at Queen's University's International Surveillance Project, argues government or corporate surveillance is far more focused, systematic and routine.

"Video phones, on the other hand, are only focused," Lyon told CBC News Online. "But they are not used in a systematic or routine manner. They are much more random."

Sociologist Bart Simon also doesn't equate the use of portable cameras by individuals with surveillance - he compares it to voyeurism.

But both sociologists agree the widespread use of video recorders raises entirely new questions about the erosion of privacy.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. When George Holliday's video camcorder caught police officers beating Rodney King in 1992, this kind of "inverse surveillance" was seen as a possible solution to direct surveillance by authorities. But camcorders never achieved the popularity necessary to effectively counter the surveillance capabilities of police, said Lyon.

The recent proliferation of videophones has helped change the power dynamic.

According to industry analyst IDC, 55 million high-end mobile phones, including phones with cameras and video recorders, were shipped worldwide in 2005, an increase of 165 per cent over 2004. Many of the latest digital still cameras can also record video clips.

The rise in access to recording technology is nothing, however, without access to a broadcast outlet willing to show the footage.

The doors to that access swung wide open last year with the founding of YouTube and the proliferation of other video-sharing sites. YouTube allowed users to upload their videos to the site and convert them to Flash video, allowing anyone with a Flash player to view them on-line. By the time Google Inc. purchased YouTube last month for $1.65 billion US, users were watching 100 million videos a day on the site.

User-generated video was officially a phenomenon.

Arrest says much

The arrest of Iranian-American student Mostafa Tabatabainejad at a UCLA library on Nov. 14 this year was one such video broadcast on YouTube. The video shows police repeatedly tasering the UCLA student during the arrest after Tabatabainejad failed to produce a student ID and then refused to leave the library.

Like Holliday's filming of the Rodney King beating, it's an example of video recording and broadcasting as a reaction to surveillance and authority that is seen as heavy-handed.

But the example of the Gatineau students recording their teacher is potentially more personal and troublesome, said Lyon. While not quite a trend, it's the second time it's happened in Quebec in the past month. And a quick search in YouTube using the words "teacher yelling" turns up 81 videos, most of which are camera phone recordings of exactly that.

Simon, an associate professor at Concordia who specializes in cyberculture and surveillance issues, said neither of the incidents involving Michael Richards or the Quebec teacher took place in a private space, but rather places that were semi-private: the private property of the comedy club and inside a classroom in a public school.

"These were not incidents where someone violated a person's privacy in the strictest sense," he said. "These same people would not be going into people's homes to record these videos."

The natural societal reaction to widespread video recording and broadcasting would be to make decisions about which semi-private spaces were private and which were actually public, he said.

"The response is to crack down on semi-private spaces," he said. "And whether it's a change-room deciding to take out cameras, or a dance club putting them in and even encouraging people to bring camera phones, the decisions on semi-private spaces are happening even if nobody is talking about them."

The danger, said Simon, is that as more and more space becomes public, people will come to expect they are being watched or recorded.

"What you're creating is a society of individuals that are more anxious and self-conscious, but also more devious in finding places to hide from observation."

Lyon also suggests individual surveillance might be less a reaction against the presence of security cameras in schools, office buildings and malls than a form of imitation.

"In a world saturated with the means to watch others, it's not hard to imagine the individual wouldn't try to find a way to benefit as well," he said.

The use of a "nanny-cam" in the home to monitor the actions of hired help is an example of how an individual can co-opt the role of the institutional employer.

Canada a good protector of privacy

Canada placed second among 37 nations in its role as a protector of privacy, according to a survey published a month ago by London-based international human rights group Privacy International. The study monitored the reach of governments in their use of video surveillance in private locations, workplace monitoring and identity protection.

Some of the credit for the positive result could go the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, or PIPEDA, which protects the use of information about individuals for commercial use.

When it comes to laws governing the use of video and photographs, however, the rules are literally all over the map.

"Privacy legislation is incomplete in Canada," said Margaret Ann Wilkinson, a professor of law and information and media studies at the University of Western Ontario. "It's difficult because you only have five jurisdictions that actually have their own legislation."

By far the strongest privacy language of any province is found in Quebec, where the provincial charter of rights and freedoms actually requires photographers or video recorders to ask for consent of the individual whose image is being captured. A 1998 Supreme Court decision affirmed the law, awarding a woman $10,000 after a photographer took a picture of her and gave it to a magazine that published the image on its front cover without her permission.

Manitoba, Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador all provide some privacy protection to individuals that can, in theory, protect people from having their image used. But unlike Quebec, the media is exempt from such claims.

Whether a video is shown on a site with paid advertising like Google's YouTube or someone's blog could also have an impact, said Wilkinson.

"The site that posted it might have a problem under PIPEDA if, like YouTube, they have ads on it," said Wilkinson. "Because technically, they are engaged in commercial activity and would fall under the act's jurisdiction."

She adds that PIPEDA has never been tested in this way and there's no certainty a multi-national company like Google would be bound by the act.

For video posted on non-profit blogs, PIPEDA offers no protection, said Wilkinson.

The widespread use of internet sites such as YouTube and MySpace are still so new it's impossible to detail what effect they might have on privacy except anecdotally, said Lyon.

But it is difficult to deny the potential power of the images, said Simon.

"We're a very visual society," he said. "There's often a difference in how people respond to verbal testimonial and online video. In our popular culture, video clinches the deal."

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