Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Drone Voyeur

The New York TimesNick Bilton had weird experience recently:

I was sitting in my home office, working on this very column about neighbors getting into arguments over drones, when I heard a strange buzzing sound outside. I looked up, and hovering 20 feet from my window was a black drone with a beady-eyed camera pointed at me.

At first, I was upset and felt spied upon. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to the opposite conclusion. Maybe it’s because I’ve become inured to the reality of being monitored 24/7, whether it’s through surveillance cameras or Internet browsers. I see little difference between a drone hovering near my window, and someone standing across the street with a pair of binoculars. Both can peer into my office.

This reminds me a lot of the legal and ethical questions surrounding Arne Svenson’s exhibition “The Neighbors”, as described by David Walker for Photo District News:

The New York photographer who provoked controversy by photographing his neighbors through their apartment windows and exhibiting the images in a show has fended off lawsuit for invasion of privacy.

New York State court judge Judge Eileen A. Rakower dismissed the claim against photographer Arne Svenson, ruling that the photos in question were protected by the First Amendment. She also ruled that the images did not violate New York State civil rights laws, as the plaintiffs had claimed.

There’s clearly something very uncomfortable about the idea of being photographed by someone else while in your own home, where the expectation of privacy is far greater than in almost any other space.

However, in parts of the United States, it’s generally legal to photograph almost any space if it’s visible publicly, especially if the subject cannot be identified (though this is not legal advice — I am not a lawyer). Someone inside their home has a reasonable expectation of privacy, but if they leave their curtains open, there is an implicit sense of permission granted. Per the court’s opinion in Foster v. Svendson:

To be sure, by our holding here — finding no viable cause of action for violation of the statutory right to privacy under these facts — we do not, in any way, mean to give short shrift to plaintiffs’ concerns. Undoubtedly, like plaintiffs, many people would be rightfully offended by the intrusive manner in which the photographs were taken in this case. However, such complaints are best addressed to the Legislature — the body empowered to remedy such inequities. […] Needless to say, as illustrated by the troubling facts here, in these times of heightened threats to privacy posed by new and ever more invasive technologies, we call upon the Legislature to revisit this important issue, as we are constrained to apply the law as it exists.

I’m not advocating voyeurism here; I don’t think you should take pictures of your neighbours, because that’s pretty creepy, and quite possibly illegal in your region. But Bilton’s article and Svenson’s work and associated court case raise captivating questions about the nature of our expectations of privacy, and the implicit permissions we give others.