Wednesday, June 04, 2008

why take pictures when you can search pictures?

I've been seeing a lot of traffic on the "you can't take pictures here" channel of social media. See Andy Carvin's Union Station encounter or DCist's post of the local news reporter hassled at Union Station while talking with Amtrak spokesman saying photos are allowed - ironic, no? And this isn't even touching all the news out of the UK of all manner of people forbidden from taking photos in public spaces (nevermind the CCTVs).

Seems that the overriding excuse to stop ordinary people taking pictures in public places is that it's a security concern. After all, we don't want terrorists scoping out their targets by taking pictures like they do in the movies.

Bruce Schneier does a great job dissecting this kind of security theater in an article in today's Guardian Online:

Given that real terrorists, and even wannabe terrorists, don't seem to photograph anything, why is it such pervasive conventional wisdom that terrorists photograph their targets? Why are our fears so great that we have no choice but to be suspicious of any photographer?

Because it's a movie-plot threat.

A movie-plot threat is a specific threat, vivid in our minds like the plot of a movie. You remember them from the months after the 9/11 attacks: anthrax spread from crop dusters, a contaminated milk supply, terrorist scuba divers armed with almanacs. Our imaginations run wild with detailed and specific threats, from the news, and from actual movies and television shows. These movie plots resonate in our minds and in the minds of others we talk to. And many of us get scared.

I'd even posit the following: If I were seriously doing homework about a potential target and didn't want to tip my hat that I was casing the target, especially if it were a well-known tourist attraction or point of interest, I'd be spending my time anonymously browsing Flickr, YouTube and the like for pictures that had already been taken by thousands, nay millions, of other people.

I've no doubt that someone, somewhere has taken the exact shot I'm looking for. Sure, I might have to look past Aunt Mildred and Uncle Joe to see what I'm looking for, but still, it's there. And likely it's been tagged nicely for me, too. Heck, I could even throw my own combinations of tags on a given set of photos for easy refinding and I wouldn't even need to resort to obvious watch words to do so.

I just hope the Feds don't start blocking our access to the social media space next. Now that would be security theater at its finest.

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