Yet another story has surfaced about the authorities being overly heavy handed in response to photography. This time, it a Japanese man threatened and detained because he was taking photos from the window of a moving train. There are two important responses to this trend. The first is to stress that it is useless for security purposes. If there is a situation in which taking a photo would help a terrorist to achieve their objectives, no enforceable anti-photo policy will deter them. Anyone willing to plan or undertake a terrorist attack will be able to tolerate any punishment that could conceivably be imposed for taking photos. They are also likely to be able to take photos in a way that will not be noticed: either with sneaky hidden cameras or with a simple camera phone or by developing an awareness of when the authorities are watching. Banning photography in places like vehicles and bridges punishes photography enthusiasts and serves no security purpose.
Secondly, the ability to take photographs is an important check against the abuse of authority. Without the infamous videotape, it is likely that the Rodney King beating would never have received public attention and that the officers involved would have been able to lie their way out of the situation. Similar abuses, such as the inappropriate use of tasers, have been appropriately documented because people present had the capability and initiative to make a recording. Photos, videos, and other recordings can provide a vital record of interactions with authority: both allowing people whose rights are abused to provide evidence and allowing frivolous claims to be dismissed. A security force that is serious about good conduct and oversight has nothing to fear and much to gain from a bit of public surveillance.
More generally, banning photography is symptomatic of the demise of open society. While there are legitimate security risks that exist and reasonable steps that should be taken to protect against them, reducing oversight and individual liberty both undermines the very things we are trying to protect and creates new risks of abuse at the hands of modern society’s burly new enforcers.
[Update: 15 November 2007] This post on Classical Bookworm, about a recent incident at the Vancouver airport, highlights how important it is for private citizens to be able to record the actions of police and other security officials.