Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Privacy and the Law

Google's Street View Camera Car in Wangen-BrĂ¼t...Image via WikipediaGulf News reports today on a Russian pilot who posted a piece of video shot from his phone of a traffic accident up on YouTube and whose month in jail and deportation sentence has been reduced on appeal to a fine.

A month in jail and deportation for filming an actual incident and posting it online may appear madly draconian, but the UAE (and the Gulf in general, actually) has always had a fraught relationship with photography and video when it comes to personal privacy - professional photographers have long been used to having to obtain release forms and there have been many, many cases over the years where people have objected to having their pictures published - particularly GCC nationals, who value their privacy highly. The issue becomes highly charged when it comes to local women, whose modesty is assiduously preserved in public.

Many years ago I was with a friend taking photos of the enormous puddles that had resulted from heavy rain in Sharjah. A magnificently bearded policeman decided to take exception to my actions and ran me into the station for 'photographing women'. His pals at the copshop obviously thought he was being as batty as I did and much barely disguised hilarity at his expense ensued at my proposed solution - he could develop my film at the twenty minute shop and if there was one woman in it he could bang me up with my blessing but if it turned out to be as woman free as I claimed, he could pay for the processing. The eventual compromise was to force me to sign a 'chit' promising never to photograph in that place again.

The fact that the accident the chap filmed actually occurred (and that the video was therefore, presumably, an accurate representation of the event) arguably plays no part in the judgement - although it would perhaps seem perfectly logical that a video of an actual event would be permissable - it is the right of an individual to privacy that takes primacy. If you filmed someone in the course of a criminal act, for instance stealing or committing an egregious traffic violation, you would be expected to hand that film over to the authorities rather than make it public - particularly if there are identifiable individuals in the footage.

What at first appears (at best) strange is actually something rather laudable - total respect for the rights of the individual and the role of the law, rather than the mob, in ensuring justice is done. Thinking about it, it's sort of odd that we find this stance odd!

Mind you, I can't wait for the Google Street View team to land here. They'll be eating biryani three times a day within seconds flat...
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11 comments:

Anonymous said...

You fail to mention that this is a public domain issue. When people are in public they give up their privacy and make themselves available to other, others then choose what to do with what they see, they can either just look and walk away; or snap a photo and then walk away.

Macthomson said...

I suspected, as I read the GN story at Mugg&Bean in Spinneys Khalidiya this morning, that there was something between the lines, given that the plaintiff and accused were both of Russian origin! Although maybe that's the storyteller in me, in search of potential intrigue. As for Google StreetView... their 'invasive' practices finally started to reveal the streets of Germanz last week, pixellated houses and all.

Seabee said...

Alex, on the subject of privacy, have a look at the Sydney Morning Herald article 'Political websites plant spy devices': It's here.

Luke said...

I disagree with you on saying it is "laudable". Laws are made by authorities on behalf of the people to protect the people. If the people don't agree with the law or if it is being abused, it should be changed by the people. That is a bit different to "mob" law which brings to mind pictures of social unrest and violence.

Gerry said...

yeah, I have to disagree here--people who are out in public are, well, in public. that means that like a bridge or a building or a puddle, they are fair game for photography, in my opinion.

whether it is polite to go around taking pictures of strangers is a separate question, of course.

alexander... said...

Seabee - it's a pretty alarmist piece, almost everyone's using 'tracking cookies' these days - and software like Symantec's Norton remove them easily. There are much scarier things people can do to track computer usage at the intelligence level. There are increasing concerns at tracking etc that's not 'opt in', for sure though.

Not sure what you mean, Luke - 'laudable' is a good thing!

Gerry, that 'polite' thing is what makes it into UAE law. There's a much greater culture of respect for the individual here and its reflected in the way the law's applied - so whether we agree or disagree with our view of what being public is, in the UAE it's not being liable to be exposed in public. Perhaps oddly, Bali is another place where what is considered private and public are wildly at odds with our occidental cultural perceptions!

Jules said...

I don't mind if I accidentally end up in someone's photo (in fact, I've made an art of photobombing tourists around the Dubai Mall). What I do mind is when my phone number, email address, date of birth, marital status, grandfather's last name, favourite toe nail polish, etc etc is passed on to some third party without my consent. That's where we need privacy laws to protect us.

Luke said...

Alex ... my point was that I don't think it is laudable. Laws are there for the benefit of the people, not the governing elite. If the majority of people want to take photos, then they should be allowed to.

Mita said...

I love the police station story - how ancient/recent was that?

alexander... said...

Luke - Okay, gotcha. It's not really the elite, though - most/all UAE nationals have an aversion to being photographed without their permission.

Mita - Pretty ancient. Mid-90s or thereabout!

Gerry said...

well, sure, alexander--the photography law is based on different standards than most western countries. my point was that I disagree that it's a good standard. politeness made law isn't really politeness at all, is it, if you take away the option to be a jerk....

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