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Roger Clarke's 'Vis Surveillance and Privacy'

Visual Surveillance and Privacy

Roger Clarke **

Notes of 8 August 2005

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In matters relating to privacy, my primary area of expertise is data surveillance technologies and their public policy implications. Visual surveillance gives rise to data; but it is not an area that I've focussed on very closely in the past.

There has been a flurry of recent technological developments in the area of 'visual surveillance', however, including:

These notes summarise my current thinking on the topic. The detailed references are focussed on Australian law.


Briefly, privacy is the interest that individuals have in sustaining a 'personal space', free from interference by other people and organisations. I've published previously on the concepts of privacy, the four dimensions of privacy, and privacy protection.

People have an expectation that their actions are visible to the people in their immediate vicinity, but not that their actions are visible to people remote in space, or remote in time.

That expectation is important, for various reasons:

The laws of many countries were adapted in the 1970s and 1980s, to provide at least some limited protections in relation to 'information privacy'. But those protections are nowhere near adequate, and protections for other dimensions of privacy are very limited indeed. See the resources provided by the Australian Privacy Foundation. See also Clarke (2000) and Clarke (2003).

Regulation of Visual Surveillance by Organisations

A variety of laws exist which impose constraints of various kinds of surveillance. For example:

In relation to visual surveillance, some legal protections already exist, in particular:

Contrary to the theory espoused by some lawyers, it is extremely difficult to frame legislation in a manner that is genuinely 'technology neutral'. Each new technology has new features, which present new challenges. In respect of each new technology, the following sequence is necessary:

Google Earth and similar services provide satellite images across large areas of the earth's surface. The services are of highly variable quality, and may be subject to military and national security interference. The images are of highly varying resolution and highly varying recency.

In Google Earth's case, the site states that the images were taken "sometime in the last three years" (documentation accessed 8 August 2005). At this stage, much of it is "medium resolution imagery and terrain data [which] allows you to see major geographic features and man-made development such as towns, but not detail of individual buildings". However, "additional high-resolution imagery which reveals detail for individual buildings is available for most of the major cities in the US, Western Europe, Canada, and the UK. 3D buildings are represented in 38 US cities (the major urban areas). Detailed road maps are available for the US, Canada, the UK, and Western Europe. And Google Local search is available for the US, Canada, and the UK". Moreover, "We offer high resolution imagery (greater than 1-meter) for thousands of cities and more are on the way".

There is no doubt that there is information and entertainment value in the public availability of this data. An example of a positive impact is the reduction in scope for government agencies and corporations to get away with lies about land usage.

Much of the data has only a minor impact on privacy. On the other hand, high-resolution imagery is potentially very threatening for some aspects of people's physical security and privacy. It is capable of assisting criminals who are considering entering properties (e.g. for theft and kidnapping), and seeking opportunities for blackmail and extortion.

As the uses, impacts and implications of services of these kinds become clear, it will be necessary for appropriate balances to be established, and the law adapted to declare those balances, and impose penalties for inappropriate behaviour.

So-called 'face recognition' technology is highly inaccurate, and very likely to cause far more harm than it prevents. See Clarke (2003a) and Clarke (2003b).

Regulation of Individual Activities

Privacy laws have to date been imposed on government agencies and corporations. The rationale for this was based on the increased capabilities of technologies, combined with the power that those organisations wield over individuals.

The activities of individuals have not to date been subject to privacy regulation. In some jurisductions, small businesses also enjoy 'lighter-touch' regulatory arrangements.

In the last couple of decades, there's been an explosion in the ability of individuals to collect, store, use and disclose personal data. As a result, it's now necessary for legislative provisions to be developed that will impose responsibilities on individuals in relation to the privacy of others.

In relation to cameras in mobile phones in particular, see the statements made by the Australian Privacy Foundation in August 2003 and January 2005.

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in the Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at the University of N.S.W., a Visiting Professor in the E-Commerce Programme at the University of Hong Kong, and a Visiting Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

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Created: 8 August 2005 - Last Amended: 8 August 2005 by Roger Clarke - Site Last Verified: 15 February 2009
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