A few weeks ago, a New York, Kyle McDonald artist installed software on the computers at a number of New York Apple stores, taking thousands of webcam photos of people standing in front of them. He then created a photo exhibition calling it ‘People Staring at Computers,’ put it on his internet blog and the photos popped up on available computers in the stores where they were taken.
After posting the video, the US Secret Service raided McDonald’s apartment and shut down the website armed with a warrant on the grounds that he’d violated 18 USC section 1030, a law pertaining to computer crimes. No arrests have yet been made, but this case brings up a number of interesting ideas.
Mr McDonald is now being represented by a civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation, which focuses entirely on freedoms in the internet and digital sphere. Their arguments include that McDonald did not knowingly violate any laws; he sought the permission of security guards and asked the consent of a number of the individuals featured in his project. Additionally, he captured the images of people in a public place, willingly standing in front of countless cameras, albeit without their knowledge in most cases.
This particular section of law is primarily intended to protect against someone accessing computers used primarily by the US government and might impact US national security or international communication or relations. I’m quite sure that computers in an Apple Store qualify as neither. McDonald was entirely under the impression that it was within his rights to take pictures in a public place and publish them on the internet given he’d been granted the right permissions for the computers in the Apple stores in question.
However, there is also the issue of technology pushing past the limits of personal privacy in a way they never have before. Image technology has progressed so far past most legislation, that the line between technologically advanced and perverse and unnecessary intrusion into peoples’ privacy. The prevalence of mobile phone cameras, small digital cameras, CCTV cameras and other similar technology have desensitised most people to having their photo taken. This has also, in turn, made people less sensitive to their rights to their own image and to the use of such images on a public sphere without their knowledge or permission.
The number of times we step in front of a camera every day is excessive, and the expectation is surely that, at some point, our picture will get taken. But who owns the rights to that photo or determines when it can be used? Who is in the right? Should the use of these photos be controlled? Or should the images of the private individuals be protected from those who would use it without their permission? This case brings up an interesting debate about who civil liberties are protecting, I open this one up to the floor.