question of the day: Is there still an as yet untapped potential for ubiquitous cameras to give power back to the public?

Wendy McElroy at Gizmodo recently posted a provocative essay entitled “Are Cameras the New Guns?” looking at the new pushback from local municipalities in the U.S. regarding civilians photographing apparent police abuse. McElroy writes:

In response to a flood of Facebook and YouTube videos that depict police abuse, a new trend in law enforcement is gaining popularity. In at least three states, it is now illegal to record any on-duty police officer.

Even if the encounter involves you and may be necessary to your defense, and even if the recording is on a public street where no expectation of privacy exists.

The legal justification for arresting the “shooter” rests on existing wiretapping or eavesdropping laws, with statutes against obstructing law enforcement sometimes cited. Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maryland are among the 12 states in which all parties must consent for a recording to be legal unless, as with TV news crews, it is obvious to all that recording is underway. Since the police do not consent, the camera-wielder can be arrested. Most all-party-consent states also include an exception for recording in public places where “no expectation of privacy exists” (Illinois does not) but in practice this exception is not being recognized.

Police harrassing tourists photographing some structures and places in London as an antiterrorism aid has been an ongoing issue in the U.K. for several years.

You’ve probably, heard, too about the Seattle cop who was caught on camera this week punching a teenaged girl after she resisted arrest for jaywalking. Interestingly, Carlos Miller, who documents the criminalization of citizens with cameras who watchdog cops at Photography Is Not a Crime, believes the cop’s punch was justified, which throws another angle on the larger issue: sometimes a cop’s work, even when totally within the bounds of legality and ethics, isn’t pretty.

There didn’t seem to be anything new to this current tussle between ubiquitous cameras in the hands of citizens keeping the powerful in check until I read an essay by David Hinckley in the New York Daily News this morning commenting on BP CEO Tony Hayward’s grilling before Congress yesterday. Hinckley writes:

A television picture was worth way more than a thousand words yesterday at the BP oil spill hearings.

Nothing spoken by witnesses, inquisitors or commentators in the day-long marathon came close to the impact of the silent Spill-Cam. It showed thousands of barrels of crude pouring into the Gulf, even as congressional representatives and the chairman of BP sparred over who’s responsible.

Those pictures also gave a voice to the party that often feels unrepresented in these major TV events: the viewer, the civilian, the proverbial average person who cares way less about the nuances of corporate culture at BP than about just stuffing a cork in that pipe.

Juxtaposing BP chief Tony Hayward with the Spill-Cam, whether it was intended as journalistic commentary or just a way to get some visual variety onto the screen, very effectively made the point that even by the normal standards of congressional hearings, yesterday’s talk was especially cheap.

Now, this isn’t quite the same as cameras-on-cops, because the “Spill-Cam” isn’t wielded by a random citizen passerby, but the impact is similar… particularly when BP appears to have been trying to keep journalistic photographers away from areas affecting by the spill. (If we want to be really paranoid, we could wonder whether the Spill-Cam, which belongs to BP, is actually giving us accurate images.)

Photography (and later film and videography) has been impacting public opinion since Mathew Brady’s images of Civil War battlefields in the 1860s. Today, however, there are more and more cameras everywhere, not just surveillance cameras but those carried around by ordinary people in cell phones. Is there still an as yet untapped potential for ubiquitous cameras to give power back to the public? Will even more cameras (as more people trade in their dumb phones for smart phones, for instance) continue to change this dynamic? Will the Spill-Cam be what ultimately sinks BP? Or have we already ready the saturation point as are as the omnipresence of cameras?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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