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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

November 17, 2012 at 8:00 PM

Seattle’s ‘creepy cameraman’ questions our comfort with being watched

At first, University of Washington professor Odai Johnson thought it was some art student’s prank.

One day last summer, right in the middle of class, a young man opened the door, stuck in a camera and began filming.

Johnson asked him to leave. He refused. Johnson closed the door on him. He re-entered. All the while, Johnson’s drama students looked unsure and nervous, frozen in a state of unease.

“I confronted the man and told him his actions were an intrusion into our space, that he had no permission to insert himself and his camera and take whatever images he was gathering for whatever uses pleased him,”  Johnson told me over email. He “never stated his reasons, never asked for cooperation or permission. Just pointed and aimed and shot.”

You can see the whole exchange yourself on YouTube, where the cameraman — whoever he is — has posted video of this and other, similar confrontations with unwilling subjects around Seattle. A shopper leaving a store by Almvig’s. A man on his cellphone outside a University Village Starbucks. A cab driver who, taking a wild guess as to why a camera is in his face, blurts, “I’m white! I’m not an African driver!”

When asked what he’s doing, the cameraman says he’s “taking a video.” When asked why, he says, “Why not?” When told he doesn’t have permission, he says, “Oh, OK” and, to his subjects’ confusion, irritation and rage, keeps filming.

It’s after the few times the cameraman decides to elaborate that you get a sense he’s trying to make a point: You’re on camera inside the grocery store, inside office buildings, and you don’t seem to mind. What, really, is the difference?

The three videos in this mysterious “Surveillance Camera Man” series have attracted hundreds of thousands of page views and lots of questions as they’ve spread from blogs to Reddit and around the Web.

Is this a social experiment or some jerk having fun? Commenters are giving mixed reviews, calling the videos everything from horrific to hilarious, and their creator everything from a moron to a genius.

We’re entering the age of facial recognition, augmented reality and whiz-bang wearable cameras like Google Glass. Never mind surveillance cameras in grocery stores. You can be recorded, maybe even identified, anywhere you go. If this so-called “creepy cameraman” has a message, it’s bigger than he knows.

Let’s start with what’s legal. I was struck, watching the videos, by the rights people think they have. Apart from the classrooms, a Scientology building and what appears to be a community center, the cameraman films in public. “This is America and I have a choice that you do not take a picture of me,” a woman from a research institute tells him. But they’re on the sidewalk. Her only choice is to walk away.

Renowned Seattle science fiction author Neal Stephenson has been called a technology prophet for predicting in his 1992 classic, “Snow Crash,” so much of what gadgets and the Web would make possible. In the book, characters called “gargoyles” walk around in special suits that let them record and upload everything around them, permission be damned.

On a panel at the school just last month, University of Washington law professor Ryan Calo talked to Stephenson about the implications of his latest book — “REAMDE.”

Calo has his own fascination with the intersection of privacy and surveillance. As it stands, privacy law can do nothing about the creepy cameraman or the pervasive public surveillance he seems to represent. But what if the law changed?

That may seem counterintuitive when technology is bursting our lives wide open, and the advice from experts is to be aware of it and deal with it. But Calo cited a recent Supreme Court case involving the use of a GPS tracking device in which five justices expressed concern over continuous surveillance. He thinks change can happen. I think he might be right.

For decades privacy law has aimed to protect people wherever there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. And it’s been assumed that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in public.

But that assumption came from a time when gathering information about private lives in public was tough. Tracking the people who walk down the street, let alone identifying them, was too cumbersome to be feasible.

How things have changed. A team of researchers led by Carnegie Mellon professor Alessandro Acquisti developed an app that uses facial recognition technology combined with publicly available online and offline data to find personal information about anyone — and even predict their Social Security numbers — just by taking their picture.

“Technology is a fact about the world. Those facts have changed,” Calo told me. “The law is not unfamiliar with drawing new lines.”

And people are not unfamiliar with moving things along — when they can see what threatens them. Last month a crowd took over a community meeting to protest the planned use of surveillance drones by Seattle police. There’s no clearer target for privacy fiends than an unmanned machine flying high overhead. Or a man who shoves a camera in your face with no explanation.

But what about the little bits of data captured by the little devices in our pockets, and the little technologies that can put all that data together?

Maybe it’s fitting that the creepy cameraman doesn’t have a name. He’s just the messenger. And we’d better listen.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message to her on Facebook.

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