The 21st-Century Peep Show

Big Brother's got you under surveillance. But so does little sister.

Digital cameras do have the potential to generate a good-citizen award every now and then. But Bill Brown, founder of the anti-surveillance activist group Surveillance Camera Players, says sites like Holla Back illustrate the "lowest common denominator" effect of fighting cameras with cameras, instead of saying no to sousveillance or any other kind of surveillance, period. "It's never going to be a good thing," he says. "You're opening the floodgates to a universal degradation, reinforcing mutual suspicion and paranoia. I'm going through your trash, you're going through mine. I'm taking pictures of you, you're taking pictures of me. And all in the name of keeping people safe from some pretty soft crimes."

Cabbie Melissa Plaut: I sometimes find myself wishing I had something other than a camera to shoot them with."
Cabbie Melissa Plaut: I sometimes find myself wishing I had something other than a camera to shoot them with."

Though Holla Back encourages submissions from women outside New York City, it is based here, and it's not the only site in the city on which (unidentified) pictures of alleged lawless citizens appear. On her blog New York Hack, cab driver Melissa Plaut posts photos of her on-road antagonists and writes Holden Caulfield-esque tales to match. After one recent trying shift, Plaut wrote, "It can really make me crazy getting caught behind all these fuckfaces who don't know how to drive, and I sometimes find myself wishing I had something other than a camera to shoot them with."

The camera as weapon is a motif among privacy experts—Marc Rotenberg calls the tool that Holla Back promotes "photographic pepper spray."

But for others, it's more than self- defense. "It's a kind of vigilantism," warns Solove, "that falls beyond structures we've put up to deal with things in a more orderly or civil way. If you resort to this kind of activity you could be fighting lawlessness with another kind of lawlessness." Technically, snapping a shot of a stranger in public, even without that stranger's consent, is perfectly legal, unless said shot is used for commercial gain. Posting it to the Internet, a public space, is also within bounds. The so-called "up-skirt" laws recently passed in some states—as a result of the burgeoning practice of surreptitiously aiming a camera up the skirt or down the blouse of unsuspecting women—make up one of the few exceptions. New York State decrees under "Stephanie's Law" that any such woman has a "reasonable expectation of privacy" in public.

Not so for a person who isn't exactly "unsuspecting," attracting attention by catcalling, for example, Rotenberg says; it's near impossible for that person to cry privacy invasion when someone takes his picture. If, however, a snapper puts online a photo that misrepresents or alters the truth, the same libel and defamation laws that apply to other media could come into play.

Raw-foodie Dan Hoyt, the subway flasher, recently complained to a New York magazine reporter about the effect on his privacy of his photo appearing online. Of course, "there's no legal protection that will leap in for that guy," Palfrey says; Hoyt actually pled guilty to public lewdness. But what if the name of the guy who did in fact flash it that day on the train was Texas Wins and not Dan Hoyt? Hoyt's name was floated on the Internet well before he was arrested. One man who posted to back then said it best: "Let me just get this out of the way first: If this guy Hoyt is not the one, God help us all for sullying the man's name."

Hoyt could have brought a tidy defamation case against the finger-pointers, had he not done the deed. Bill Brown, of Surveillance Camera Players, points out that even guilty people deserve due process. "If a picture is circulated in that fashion, people will believe the person guilty before he has been found so," Brown says. "A person could be tracked down, even beaten up—and all of this will take place outside the normal channels."

But cyber-vigilantism may have more to do with violating an ethical or social "law" than an actual one. As a 2005 incident in South Korea illustrates, the biggest problem is the potential for a kind of punishment that outweighs the crime.

Last June, when a woman refused to clean her dog's mess from the subway floor in Seoul, South Korea, another commuter snapped and posted. After thousands viewed the photo, she was identified by her real name and subsequently dubbed "Dog Poop Girl" by Internet vigilantes. The woman and her family were harassed to such an extent that she reportedly dropped out of school and publicly threatened litigation and suicide.

Solove calls the effects of an embarrassing photo "permanent, like a kind of digital scarlet letter." He adds, "It's very problematic because there is a value to being able to live these things down. Eventually they're supposed to fade and be forgotten. It exacerbates the level of shame." Trying to remove an offending photo from the Web, a near-impossible endeavor, may draw even more attention to it.

Then there is the problem inherent to vigilantism of any stripe: unpoliced individuals doing the work of the police.

"Who makes sure they're acting appropriately?" says Solove. Citizens who become vigilantes, or "norm enforcers," can make a plausible case for what they're doing, "but what about when it's a norm you don't like? Anybody could decide to put up pictures of everyone who goes into a strip club, or abortion clinics, to make a point about abortion. What about a religious group that posts pictures of women wearing too provocative clothing?"

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