Musings of the Great Eric

The War on Photography

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Security Guru Bruce Schneier makes an excellent observation regarding the much hyped relationship between photography and terrorism:

Except that it’s nonsense. The 9/11 terrorists didn’t photograph anything. Nor did the London transport bombers, the Madrid subway bombers, or the liquid bombers arrested in 2006. Timothy McVeigh didn’t photograph the Oklahoma City Federal Building. The Unabomber didn’t photograph anything; neither did shoe-bomber Richard Reid. Photographs aren’t being found amongst the papers of Palestinian suicide bombers. The IRA wasn’t known for its photography. Even those manufactured terrorist plots that the US government likes to talk about — the Ft. Dix terrorists, the JFK airport bombers, the Miami 7, the Lackawanna 6 — no photography.

Given that real terrorists, and even wannabe terrorists, don’t seem to photograph anything, why is it such pervasive conventional wisdom that terrorists photograph their targets? Why are our fears so great that we have no choice but to be suspicious of any photographer?

Because it’s a movie-plot threat.

Simply, terrorists don’t do photography. And if they did, I’m quite sure they’d be doing it with something innocuous like a camera phone or even a spy camera, rather than a great big digital SLR with a tripod. Yet I’ve personally been stopped and questioned by security guards or police officers so many times now that I hardly find the incidents worth mentioning anymore. I’ve simply begun to carry around one of these and grown more assertive in my rights, and for the most part I’m left alone after a few short questions. But it’s still ridiculous that I’m bothered at all.

Further, as disturbing as any harassment of civil liberties is, that’s not even the real problem. The bigger issue raised by the War on Photography, as Schneier points out is that it’s an astonishing misdirection of security efforts:

The problem with movie-plot security is it only works if we guess the plot correctly. If we spend a zillion dollars defending Wimbledon and terrorists blow up a different sporting event, that’s money wasted. If we post guards all over the Underground and terrorists bomb a crowded shopping area, that’s also a waste. If we teach everyone to be alert for photographers, and terrorists don’t take photographs, we’ve wasted money and effort, and taught people to fear something they shouldn’t.

And even if terrorists did photograph their targets, the math doesn’t make sense. Billions of photographs are taken by honest people every year, 50 billion by amateurs alone in the US And the national monuments you imagine terrorists taking photographs of are the same ones tourists like to take pictures of. If you see someone taking one of those photographs, the odds are infinitesimal that he’s a terrorist.


Written by Eric

June 5, 2008 at 12:22 pm

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