The NYPD has been filming public protests for years, and had city lawyers argue recently that capturing anything going on in public is just fine–which does indeed seem to be a fair interpretation of privacy law as it has evolved. However, when their sauce is gored, or when asked if what's good for the goose is good for the ox, it is–predictably, I know–a different matter. And the Patriot Act is involved, somehow.
As the Village Voice reports, a couple of advocates from "Transportation Alternatives" were investigating a practice that annoys them: cars illegally parked blocking sidewalks. When they did it outside the Fifth Precinct in Chinatown, they were held, questioned, and told to delete photos of police officers' personal cars parked on the sidewalk. One of the photograpers held:
says the officers listed several reasons they could not photograph cops' personal vehicles, including concerns that if the license plate numbers were published online, gang members could track police to their homes. "One officer asked if we were familiar with the gang situation in Chinatown," Hoberman recalls. "He said his tires had been slashed outside the precinct. He said, 'This is not the West Village.' And he mentioned the Patriot Act.
His account was confirmed by David Snetman, the Transportation Alternatives staffer coordinating the survey, who came to the precinct to intervene. "They said the Patriot Act is somehow involved. The commanding officer, an Asian man, chimed in and said to me, 'Are you familiar with the Patriot Act?' " Snetman says. "They said if we wanted to continue our survey, Brian would have to delete the photos he'd taken. They didn't go so far as to say it was illegal; they just said they didn't want us to do it."
The Voice story goes on to tell another story of traffic scofflaw cops insisting citizens cannot take pictures of them. David Brin's "transparent society," as he will remind us, is only livable when the watchers watch the watchers watching the watched watching the watchers, and so on. Clearly, there's still a fair amount of window-washing to do before we reach that version of transparency.