Impact of video cameras brings ethical concerns about privacy

April 28, 1991|By Randi Henderson

The beginning of the video snoop can probably be dated to 1948 when a man named Allen Funt hid a camera, tricked people into amusing and sometimes embarrassing situations, then -- after revealing himself and obtaining their consent -- broadcast the results on that fledgling medium, television.

Today, Allen Funt -- whose "Candid Camera" show went off the air as a regular series in 1978 -- says this about the ever-increasing intrusion of the video camera into daily life: "It's a subject that I'm so confused about."

His confusion is eloquent testimony to the way technology has outstripped ethics and legality in determining boundaries for the use of the video camera.

From attorneys to academics to businessmen, people involved with the impact of the video camera on modern society agree that while new technologies open up new worlds of communication and record-keeping, this can often be at the expense of personal privacy.

"Like other technologies, video cameras carry opportunity and real danger at the same time," said Stuart Comstock-Gay, director of the Maryland branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Very little in our lives is private anymore, and video cameras are one of the most obvious manifestations of that."

Mr. Comstock-Gay cited as "good use of the video camera" the taping last month of Los Angeles police beating Rodney King. "Bad," he said, "is employers conducting surveillance in the locker room. We know it happens. But we don't know how much it happens."

As for legal guidelines, "You can use a camera in those areas where the naked eye could see," said Charles Carroll, president of ASET Corporation, a Dayton, Ohio-based company specializing in covert surveillance operations.

"It's perfectly within the limits of the law to tape the street from someone's home. If you're looking behind the walls into a private home, you begin to get into a person's right to privacy."

Taping in public becomes legally questionable, said Robert Ellis Smith, a Rhode Island attorney who edits a monthly newsletter, The Privacy Journal, "when you photograph people who are doing things that are constitutionally protected, such as exercising their rights of free speech, religion or assembly."

He added that private individuals and companies can go further in taping than the government, whose activities are restrained by Fourth Amendment restrictions against illegal search and seizure.

"Companies will use video surveillance for safety or security, usually with the camera in plain view," Mr. Carroll said. "But I don't know many companies that want to be viewed as spying on their employees."

With new technology, though, "anything is possible," he said. "Go into a Radio Shack and see what you can buy to invade a person's privacy. The stuff is readily available."

The public's fascination with videotaping is evident in the popularity of two TV shows, "America's Funniest Home Videos" and "America's Funniest People." And a new version of "Candid Camera" -- with Allen Funt as consultant -- is scheduled for syndication this fall.

It's a format that has become public domain, Mr. Funt said. "I finally had to realize that this is no one's property. Anyone can take pictures that way."

News media are also availing themselves of the proliferation of video cameras, and the Rodney King incident is only one example. Cable Network News has a feature called "News Hounds," which solicits tape from viewers. In the five years the feature has run, said CNN spokeswoman Melinda McIntire, about 150 tapes have been submitted.

"We use it to supplement our coverage, usually of natural disasters," she explained. "For example, flooding, tornadoes, plane crashes, an alligator in a swimming pool."

Locally, WMAR-TV (Channel 2) just two weeks ago added a "news watcher" feature, asking viewers to submit tapes of breaking stories. "We've had a moderate response," said news director Bob Feldman. Only one piece has been used so far: a roof falling in an apartment complex fire.

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