Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
Is photography and video recording the fairest manner to prevent attacks and crime?

-- By TomasHolguin - 04 Mar 2015

1. Introduction: Since the XIX century, many embraced surveillance as the way to prevent attacks and crime. Among the mechanism used recently by governments, the installation of surveillance cameras in public spaces was favored.

The combination of the high-speed at which the government uses technological devices and the slow-pace of legislators and courts to use the tools available to enact new regulations or to reinterpret the existing laws, is taking the American society under the constant scrutiny of the cameras without a major discussion as to the real significance of the videos and the photography’s, as true reproductions of “reality”.

2. The role of photography: Back in the XIX century, photography was the subject matter of several discussions, as recalled by Susan Sontag. On one side, some considered photography as an art, and others a manner to show reality. For example, the French writer Émile Zola, in 1901 declared –after fifteen years of amateur picture taking– that “_you cannot claim to have really seen something until you have photographed it._”

This approach marked the beginning of the use of photography (and latter video-recording) to serve not only artistic goals but also political purposes. Instead of just recording a particular and subjective piece of reality (as painters did), photography and video recording became the rule for the way things –objectively– appear to the world. The conclusion reached then, was that the photographer was a transparent observer that plagiarized what happened in reality. Photographers had no discourse –since they were not poets – they were only transcribers.

But as Susan Sontag recalled too, “_people quickly discovered that nobody takes the same picture of the same thing.” The idea that cameras were the ones taking the picture and not the individual behind them furnishing an impersonal, objective image was slowly changed to the fact that photographs are evidence not only of what there is, but of what an individual sees: pictures, was latter claimed, are an evaluation of the world, not a simple copy.

3. The version of the Supreme Court: One would expect that judges would reformulate and interpret the existing legal tools according to the new realities under which they are required. The Supreme Court in Scott v. Harris reached a very dangerous conclusion in connection with the use of images.

The issue was whether an officer using excessive force during a high-speed pursuit as a way of ending a chase, acted against the Fourth Amendment. The Court concluded that a “police officer's attempt to terminate a dangerous high-speed car chase that threatens the lives of innocent bystanders does not violate the Fourth Amendment.” However, the real problem of the decision was that the Court used a video taken from the police car to grant summary judgment to the officer.

As the Court said, there was no issue of material fact as to the reasonableness of the officer's action and no reason or opportunity for a jury trial. The Court concluded, as if the video was their eyes, that “the record in this case includes a videotape capturing the events in question. Where, as here, the record blatantly contradicts the plaintiff's version of events so that no reasonable jury could believe it, a court should not adopt that version of the facts for purposes of ruling on a summary judgment motion.” Once the Court viewed the video they claimed to be present at the scene and no other proofs were required.

4. Government’s view: The government believes that cameras are, in fact, useful tools to prevent attacks. The Obama’s administration asked Congress last year for funding to buy 50,000 body cameras to record events like the shooting of Brown. Obama proposed a three-year, $263 million to increase use of body cameras. The argument used by Obama is that cameras are tools to increase “the trust between law enforcement agencies and the people they protect”.

This decision is problematic taking into account the manner in which the Court analyzes videos, as unbeatable proofs of reality, when recorded by police officers.

The approach of the Government and the Court does not take into consideration a conclusion reached at the XIX century, according to which the photographer could have a political discourse; that a photograph or a video changes according to the context in which it is seen and is used. In each situation it can suggest different things but none can secure their only meaning.

As Wittgenstein argued for words, that the meaning is the use—so for each photograph. Supreme Court’s approach to video as an objective prove of reality posses many dangers which will be multiplied when the policemen administers the only valid proofs.

Maybe, contrary to Obama’s claim, under the view of the Supreme Court this might not be the fairest way to enhance “collaborative relationships between local police and the communities they protect.”


Webs Webs

r1 - 04 Mar 2015 - 23:09:00 - TomasHolguin
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