The rise of camera phones, blogs and photo sharing sites like Flickr means people are frequently taking pictures of complete strangers in public places and posting them on the web. A reader asks Wired magazine if that’s a violation of privacy:
I sometimes snap pictures of strangers and post them on my blog and Flickr. Could I get into legal trouble for violating their privacy?
Snap away, shutterbug. As long as your subjects don’t have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” – meaning they’re not somewhere they’d never expect a camera to be – you’re on pretty solid ground. Even if you photograph them while they’re on private property, you’re in the clear – just make sure they’re in plain view and you’re not trespassing.
Wired has it wrong. Ten years ago one’s “reasonable expectation of privacy” might have hinged on whether they could expect someone to simply have a camera, but now, in our Web 2.0-riddled world, cameras have become much more mobile, much more ubiquitous, much easier to use serrupticiously, and frequently designed specifically for widespread distribution on a global, publicly-accessible electronic network (that Interweb thing people keep talking about). Instead of simply considering whether a person would expect a camera to be present in a particular situation, the calculus of whether snapping a photo of a person and posting it to one’s blog should address whether the “contextual integrity” of the flow of personal information is maintained.
New camera technologies and web-publishing platforms disrupt the existing norms of distribution in the context of having a picture taken by a stranger in public. Previously, such a voyeuristic image might have just been put on the photographer’s refrigerator, or the wall of a studio, or perhaps shown to a few hundred people at a gallery. But with the ease of taking pictures at almost any moment of our lives, and posting those pictures for thousands and thousands to view online, these norms are disrupted, the contextual integrity is broken, and a privacy violation might indeed occur.