News sources report “invasion of privacy” situations quite frequently these days. Ironically, their reporting exacerbates the situation. A firefighter in my home state is under the gun for distributing a video, made by his personal cell phone, of an accident victim who was deceased. She won’t see the footage, of course, but her family did, because the person who shot it used electronic means to distribute it. Most of us would see that as a clear cut case of invading the privacy of the victim’s family. Yet, I would never have known about the gruesome video if the local news media had not put excerpts online. Should the family have made their plea for privacy so publicly? No doubt some journalism class is debating it right now.
As a writer, I have attended seminar sessions on how to write realistic crime scenes. A few years ago, I was sitting in a hotel meeting room while a forensic detective showed a video of a murder scene, with the sound muted, because he said that he did not want us to hear what the officers were saying about the situation. Instead, he talked about the process of collecting evidence and the nature of the crime. However, shooting a video at a crime scene is standard operating procedure, but what happens to the file later is not so clear.
Traffic stops are routinely video-taped, and there is a presentation about distracted drivers, featuring videos of local traffic stops, going around to schools in this area. The mission is well-meaning, of course. Having a camera on the dashboard should protect both the officer and the citizen, but again, sometimes good ideas aren’t good ideas, if one values privacy.
Beyond the realm of public safety, modern technology rivals Superman’s “x-ray vision.” Going into a dressing room at a department store may mean being featured on a security video. Stores have reasons to believe that some “customers” are actually thieves, hence the cameras. Flying on a commercial airliner means a trip through airport security, and the scanners they have can render a pretty good nude. Yet, as terrorism is still a concern, most people submit to the scans. With the ease of electronic transfer, such images may be circulated and recirculated. Once posted online, a photo can be “stolen” and the person depicted has lost any control of what happens to the image.
According to news sources, a school in Pennsylvania recently settled two lawsuits, for more than $600K, over using webcams on school issued laptop computers to spy on students. Some 56,000 images were recorded by the laptops, which were issued to over 2000 students. If you don’t remember the story, this situation came to light after an administrator accused a student of taking drugs. It turned out the the student was eating candy (something like Good ‘N Plenty) at home, and the computer was recording images of the student, snacking on something that looked like pills.
Some years ago, an acquaintance was told by her employer that she could not use her work computer after hours to type up a “prayer bulletin” because listing names of people with their medical conditions was a breach of ethics. Prayer is an essential part of spiritual life, and at the time, I thought that was a strong reaction on the part of the employer. Since then I have come to agree with that manager, because the file could read by anyone with access to that computer. If the file is transmitted via email, then it could go anywhere. More than ever before, it is better to avoid naming names and displaying images, because privacy is like reputation. Once damaged, it is hard to restore.