Everywhere we go in any city in the western world, we are being video-recorded. In stores, outside banks, at intersections, and anywhere near a doorbell camera or security camera. We have become so used to it that we don’t even think about it any more.
Yesterday, though, I was given a reason to think about it. Someone in my neighbourhood had a package stolen from their front porch and posted a doorbell camera picture of the thief on the NextDoor app. I read it, looked at the picture, and noted that the victim had made a report to the police.
This is something I have done myself. When we first got our security cameras I was eager to share pictures of the miscreants who tried to get into our back yard and our vehicles. I thought it was helpful to let our neighbours know who they were and what they were up to. I, too, notified the police and followed that by posting the details on NextDoor.
Now I am reconsidering that point of view. One of the comments that was posted yesterday in response to the one showing the thief suggested that it was morally wrong to post someone’s picture on the Internet without their permission. This prompted a lengthy discussion about the legal right to take photos in public places, the thief’s abdication of the moral high ground, the need for the community to be made aware, and so on.
What most of those comments missed was the distinction between taking a picture of someone stealing from a porch and posting that picture on the Internet. The first is legally and morally acceptable. The second, I’m not sure about. My concern is that everything on the Internet is there for ever, for everyone, everywhere. That goes far beyond meeting the needs of the community over a current problem. What if the thief was desperate at the time, but ten years from now is in a good place and wants to run for political office? That image will still be out there.
Even though we know we are being photographed and videotaped all the time, we have not given our consent for those images to be shared indiscriminately. We probably imagine that the pictures are seen only by police or security people, and that they are only looking for bad guys. If we, the good guys, are accidentally included in the frame, we might assume we will be overlooked or airbrushed out of any future reproductions. Even if we are the bad guys, we probably don’t think about those images being put on the web for the world to see. But, really, we cannot assume anything about those pictures.
Even if we feel good about posting the pics online, we have no evidence that sharing those images with our neighbours actually helps them at all. I know that is the basic premise for the doorbell cameras and the NextDoor app, but does anyone actually catch a crook because of those online posts? I haven’t seen any proof of that beyond dramatizations of crimes on television.
The photos and video stills we capture may be of some value to police, but even they are reluctant to accept videos. In my city at least they just don’t have the capacity to store all the information that we are gathering with our cameras. It seems important and urgent to the individual victim, but may not be useful to the police until after they actually catch the villain.
But those are practical issues. What has been bothering me is the moral issue. I would love to know what ethicists would think about us posting on the Internet pictures of thieves without their knowledge or consent. For the time being, I’m going to keep my pictures to myself and, if necessary, the police.