It’s OK now for someone to shoot photos of you through your apartment window? NY court leaves a dark picture of privacy imperiled

When the first court ruling came down in 2013, this came down, with signature restraint, from The New York Post: “Judge backs the right of creepy Tribeca artist to photograph people through their windows.” Two weeks ago an appeals court upheld that decision, and The Hollywood Reporter announced: “Artist who spied on neighbors with telephoto lens beats privacy claims.”

Welcome to the affair of Arne Svenson, a fine arts photographer of considerable skill. He spent a year using a 500mm telephoto lens he got from a birdwatching friend to shoot thousands of pictures of his unwitting neighbors through the windows of their plush apartments across the street from his in Lower Manhattan. When some of Svenson’s photos were offered for sale at a high-end New York gallery in 2013, he was sued for, among other things, invasion of privacy.

Although they’re described in some quarters as “voyeuristic,” there’s nothing salacious about his pictures. They’re tasteful, and they’re cool. They’re photos of legs and of dogs, of reclining figures, of shadows and profiles, of children shot from behind, of blurred couples interacting and, perhaps, arguing. By and large, you can’t tell who the people are, and that anonymity, it’s suggested, universalizes the images. They’re framed by the crisp lines of their living-room windows, and the results look very much like art.

“I find the unrehearsed, unconscious aspects of life the most beautiful to photograph, as they are most open to interpretation, to a narrative,” Svenson said in 2013. “A dramatic moment has the single power of action, but tiny, linked moments are how we mark time on this earth. I am much more interested in recording the breath between words than I am the actual words themselves.”

So? How much of that matters? Here those people are, inhabiting “the breath between words,” tending to household pleasures, fussing or napping, scolding their kids, eating their prunes or flirting with their mates or scratching their butts, and some faceless guy across the way using some mid-tech peephole captures these images—and decides how much of what’s captured should be shared with (and peddled to) a vast audience of strangers. Don’t expectations of privacy matter? Does artistic flutter trump personal sanctuary?

The New York courts, applying a century-old law intended to keep an individual’s likeness from being used in advertisements without consent, decided that state privacy protections had to yield to Svenson’s expressive freedom under the First Amendment. That’s because a huge “newsworthy and public concern exemption” to privacy safeguards had been carved out, and although there’s nothing remotely newsworthy about Svenson’s images, it applies to literature, movies and works of art as well.

Now, newspeople are used to basing their right to ignore primordial privacy claims on such matters as where the photographer is shooting the picture from (a sidewalk, e.g.) or where the figures being shot are standing (if they’re in a Continue reading “It’s OK now for someone to shoot photos of you through your apartment window? NY court leaves a dark picture of privacy imperiled”

Would Google’s new glasses keep an eye on things?

Google’s launch of its dazzling Internet-connected eyewear, which it calls Glass, has been so understated that it’s tempting to mistake this wearable computer for just another cool plaything from Silicon Valley.

I think that would be wrong. Glass—its progeny, its successors, its imitators–is a very big deal, in my view, as big as anything that has come along since the PC and the World Wide Web a generation ago.

It’s not that Google’s eyeglasses are more powerful than today’s smartphones. At the moment Glass apparently does less, since the range and precision of instructions it recognizes are confined to what the wearer can convey through gestures, taps and limited speech.

What matters, big time, is that Glass layers a real-time Internet presence onto users’ normal visual fields—onto their everyday, curbside awareness, their routine comings and goings.

Glass looks like a pair of spectacles and works like a phone; what the user sees is a display that’s perched above the usual band of vision. That display accommodates a continuing crawl of Internet-fueled communications—text, images and sound.

Glass gets access to your world, it sees what you see. It can draw from your social networks, Internet queries, calendar, dining preferences, the bottomless resources of the Web, to furnish you with multiple levels of information and intelligence—customized for you—to inspire your choices and shape your life.

True, the technologically adept already get that via smart phones by heedlessly stroking at their tiny screens. But Glass promises a brazen and routine simultaneity of experience, an ability to interact seamlessly with the here and now without losing rich Web-enabled connectivity—just as having the radio on never meant you couldn’t talk with a friend.

That’s the good news. Now the rest. For starters, Glass can record and transmit pictures and sound. It is, as privacy expert Shaq Katikala puts it, “a phone in front of your eyes with a Continue reading “Would Google’s new glasses keep an eye on things?”

Peephole journalism: What are the limits?

Just how private is the closed-door talk of the powerful? And if the unguarded comments of politicians who assume they’re speaking in confidence are captured on tape, is it OK to make those tapes public?

That question came up during the 2012 campaign. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney told a roomful of Florida donors that 47 percent of their compatriots would never vote Republican because they were, essentially, parasitic layabouts who had been bought off by government stipends.

A recording of his talk to a private gathering was made by a bartender and made public by Mother Jones magazine. It confirmed the image of Romney that the Democrats had been peddling, as an arrogant, aloof plutocrat who looked down his nose at the working class voters his electoral success depended on.

Did that disclosure intrude on the privacy that Romney and his listeners assumed? Unquestionably.

But was that intrusion justified? Did it give voters a unique chance to hear a candidate who, apparently speaking his mind, uncorked a foul brew of contempt and condescension for nearly half of his fellow countrymen?

I thought so, and although I found the privacy invasion regrettable, I was convinced what it revealed, and what might not have been heard otherwise, made the intrusion justified. Mother Jones and reporter David Corn performed a public service.

I’m not so convinced by the most recent controversy that Corn and the magazine have stirred up with secret recordings of another big league politician.

Earlier this month, Mother Jones reported that the Senate minority leader,  Mitch McConnell, had huddled with campaign aides in Louisville, Ky., to plot his  2014 re-election strategy. According to a clandestine video of their Feb. 2 meeting , the politicos were feasting on the candidacy of film star Ashley Judd, Continue reading “Peephole journalism: What are the limits?”