It may be difficult to explain why privacy is so important, as Glenn Greenwald writes, but it's not at all that hard for people with power to understand. Normally people's concerns about privacy are dismissed with a "If you're not doing anything wrong, then you have nothing to worry about," unless, of course, you're the police. Then people recording you doing your job in public should be thrown in prison:
Anthony Graber, a Maryland Air National Guard staff sergeant, faces up to 16 years in prison. His crime? He videotaped his March encounter with a state trooper who pulled him over for speeding on a motorcycle. Then Graber put the video -- which could put the officer in a bad light -- up on YouTube.
It doesn't sound like much. But Graber is not the only person being slapped down by the long arm of the law for the simple act of videotaping the police in a public place. Prosecutors across the U.S. claim the videotaping violates wiretap laws -- a stretch, to put it mildly.
In the Graber case, the trooper also apparently had reason to want to keep his actions off the Internet. He cut Graber off in an unmarked vehicle, approached Graber in plain clothes and yelled while brandishing a gun before identifying himself as a trooper.
Law enforcement is fighting back. In the case of Graber -- a young husband and father who had never been arrested -- the police searched his residence and seized computers. Graber spent 26 hours in jail even before facing the wiretapping charges that could conceivably put him away for 16 years. (It is hard to believe he will actually get anything like that, however. One point on his side: the Maryland attorney general's office recently gave its opinion that a court would likely find that the wiretap law does not apply to traffic stops.)
Last year, Sharron Tasha Ford was arrested in Florida for videotaping an encounter between the police and her son on a public sidewalk. She was never prosecuted, but in June, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida sued the city of Boynton Beach on her behalf, claiming false arrest and violation of her First Amendment rights.
The legal argument prosecutors rely on in police video cases is thin. They say the audio aspect of the videos violates wiretap laws because, in some states, both parties to a conversation must consent to having a private conversation recorded. The hole in their argument is the word "private." A police officer arresting or questioning someone on a highway or street is not having a private conversation. He is engaging in a public act.
Even if these cases do not hold up in court, the police can do a lot of damage just by threatening to arrest and prosecute people. "We see a fair amount of intimidation -- police saying, 'You can't do that. It's illegal,'" says Christopher Calabrese, a lawyer with the ACLU's Washington office. It discourages people from filming, he says, even when they have the right to film.
And here's the video Graber is being prosecuted for:
While Graber was obviously engaged in reckless and illegal behavior out in public for which he should have been taken off the road, the police officer's reaction was questionable.
But even if the police can't suppress this video, their attempts to show they recognize the silliness behind the "If you're not doing anything wrong then you have nothing to worry about" argument. People do make mistakes, and the power to humiliate them and hold them accountable for their actions is a form of power. The people should have the power to humiliate and hold public officials accountable. But when this power acts in the other direction to keep people in line, it makes them paranoid and submissive and behave, always, as if they were in front of a large audience. That's the entire point - to stifle individualism and to make people think that they're always under the threat of being prosecuted or losing their job.
Surveillance is a means of controlling people, and the folks who use surveillance immediately recognize its power, even if the rest of us don't.