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No snapping: Photographers get collars felt

Watch where you point that thing this weekend

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Fancy getting your camera out this Bank Holiday weekend? Best be careful who you point it at.

For instance, don’t go taking snaps of unmarked police cars. This was the mistake made by amateur photographer David Gates, who photographed a Police BMW parked illegally at a bus stop in Portsmouth, Hants. Before you could say “Cheese!”, the Police were on him and asking questions under the Terror Act 2000.

Then there’s the sorry tale of Andrew Carter, who spotted a police van ignoring no-entry signs to reverse up a one-way street to reach a chip shop, and felt it was his public duty as a citizen to record both the van and the officer involved, PC Farooq.

For his pains, Mr Carter was abused, had his camera knocked to the ground, arrested, bundled into the van and finally held in police cells for five hours.

Then there’s the recent survey released by the ATL, which reveals that while teachers are pretty cool about using CCTV to spy on their pupils – even in the toilet – they are a little worried about the appalling notion that the same cameras could be turned on them in the classroom.

How very odd. As a society, it is widely acknowledged that we are (one of) the most observed in the world. At present, Britain boasts 4.2 million cameras – that’s one for every 14 people - or allegedly one-fifth of the CCTV cameras on the planet. It is estimated that you are likely to be caught on camera on average 300 times a day. The total number of cameras is predicted to double (to 8.6 million) by 2018.

More recently, Police and Parking Enforcement Officers have begun to be kitted out with mobile cameras – so they can record every tiny detail of interaction with the public.

Any argument that this might be a little intrusive is met with the bland old reassurance that “if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear”. Quite apart from ignoring the effect on society of gradually moving to a situation in which we can no longer have any expectation of privacy in any open space, what these stories have in common is an emerging double standard: “They” may photograph us when, where and how they like, but we should think twice about photographing them.

Of course, there can be legitimate reasons for opposing the use of cameras. In talking to El Reg about the law on photography, several Police Forces made the fair comment that there were individuals who had learnt how to use cameras at demonstrations as a means to wind individual officers up.

Undoubtedly, this happens – although as with any such abuse, perhaps it should be punished appropriately when it does, rather than used as a reason for clamping down more widely. Part of the problem, as far as authority is concerned, is the sheer scale of public photography.

The general consensus by analysts, Gartner, is that around 80 per cent of mobile phones in the UK can be used as cameras, whilst the Mobile Data Association’s first quarterly statistics for 2008 (pdf) on the sending of MMS (picture texts) show 449 million picture texts were sent in 2007 – and December 2007 represented 55 per cent growth year on year.

Some of the results of this private photography are suitably documentary in nature. But others purport to expose in graphic detail illegal arrests or worse on the part of the authorities. Sometimes, such exposure can have drastic consequences - remember the Rodney King affair?

It seems likely that there will be more news of this ilk in coming months. Here at El Reg, we are in two minds. On the one hand, we aren’t especially in favour of the stripping away of privacy that it represents - but then we do believe that what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

As New Labour increasingly looks to pry into every detail of our private lives, some sort of reciprocal right to peer into theirs seems only fair, doesn't it? ®

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