Nowhere left to hide

Whether you're in jail or at the supermarket, your image might be shown on the Net, and there's not a thing you can do about it.

Published June 18, 2001 8:06PM (EDT)

Decked out in full riot gear, a police battalion storms a women's jail cell. "Ladies, you're gonna step out single file, one at a time, stand against the wall!" bellows an officer. The cops wear Army boots and helmets. They carry batons and shields. They look like they're prepared to quell rampant mayhem in the streets. Instead, they're entering a secure women's holding cell, supposedly to search for contraband.

Viewed through the small streaming-video frame on a computer monitor the female inmates look poor, fat and nonplussed as they file out of the cell and stand splayed against the "wall," which is actually a window in the men's holding cell. Hands above their heads against the window, they face the male inmates through the glass. The men immediately flock closer to gawk and taunt.

A "shakedown" at the Madison Street Jail in Maricopa County in Phoenix has begun.

"Put your hands on the glass! Ladies, keep your hands on the wall at all times," yells another officer, as female cops pat down the women and the riot police search the now empty women's cell.

The pat-down spectacle is apparently too much for the male inmates behind the glass watching the free show. "They flashing me! They flashing too much of what they ain't got," complains one of the women. On our computers, we can't see what she sees, but it's not hard to imagine. She sasses back through the window: "Hey, where's your boyfriend at, baby? Are you your bitch?"

Getting arrested in Maricopa County can make you a star -- a star in a sick webcam drama that turns the inside of a local jail into a worldwide freak show for any voyeur with a Web connection. Since July 2000, the county jail's four cameras have served up live images of the facility's search area, the men's and women's holding cells and the pre-intake area. The images are hosted on, a site now owned by USA Networks and started by the co-founder of the reality TV show "Cops." Bonus scenes include the shakedown video, which the site bills as "Special Ops," a two-minute low-budget movie that provides extra titillation for Web-enabled prying eyes.

Watching the video provides the same kind of fascination as a train wreck, but the legality of the world's first jail webcam has come under fire. On May 24, Middle Ground Prison Reform, a nonprofit in Tempe, Ariz., filed suit on behalf of the tens of thousands of inmates who have been incarcerated in the jail since the webcams started rolling on Middle Ground is seeking class-action status for the suit and a whopping $1.375 billion in damages.

"These people's images are being used on a commercial Web site without their permission and, in most cases, without their knowledge," says Donna Leone Hamm, co-founder of Middle Ground. "We're saying: 'Take the webcams down. You can leave the cameras up for security, fine, you're allowed to do that. But you have to take them off the Web site. That is an inappropriate invasion of privacy.'"

Privacy? In a jail? Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the publicity-seeking head of Madison Street Jail, thinks there is no such thing. He characterizes the lawsuit as frivolous and vows: "This is a great program. I'm not going to back down."

The billion-dollar case of the sheriff and his rogue webcams hinges on a single issue: What rights do prisoners in a county jail have to their own images? But it also raises a scarier question: What rights do any of us have to our own images these days? Is your image property you own or something you give up by venturing out in public?

As surveillance by security cameras, in every public space from airports to parking garages to convenience stores, becomes the norm, one estimate suggests that we're each taped an average of 30 times a day. Women seeking abortions are alarmed to discover that their images as they enter a clinic might be broadcast on the Web. Football fans attending this year's Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla., were surprised to learn that their images not only had been recorded but had been compared with a database of known criminals using new "biometric" face-recognition technology.

Compounding the problem, video cameras are getting cheaper and smaller. Privacy experts predict that it won't be long before security cameras are networked. Can Big Brother-style tracking of individuals' whereabouts be far behind?

In the early days of the Web, exhibitionists like Jenni of Jennicam couldn't wait to webcast their lives to the world. But like it or not, we're all becoming more like Jenni every day. For as perversely fascinating as it may be to peek in on the spectacle at the Madison Street Jail, we may have more in common with the inmates than we'd like to think.

From "Snooper Bowl" football fans in Florida to ferry passengers in Rhode Island, surveillance subjects are starting to realize that they don't control the dissemination of their own images. In April, a local businessman in Block Island, R.I., moved his webcam, which had been aimed at the island's only ferry, after the company operating the ferry threatened to sue, complaining that passengers could be identified from the images. The webcam owner backed down to avoid a costly lawsuit.

He may have jumped the gun. According to legal experts, in most states there are no legal grounds to object to your image being captured in a public place, unless it's a place with an "expectation of privacy," like a bathroom stall. Shari Steele, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, explains: "People are putting cameras in all sorts of public facilities. They're everywhere. We, as a society, have just decided that that's acceptable." But is what Arpaio, the self-proclaimed "Toughest Sheriff in America," is doing acceptable? The hugely popular sheriff has gained notoriety around the country for an array of harsh practices, for some of which he has already been sued. He brags it costs just 40 cents a day to feed one of his inmates, while it costs $1.15 to feed one of the jail dogs. He serves inmates green baloney sandwiches, makes them wear pink underwear and houses them in tents outdoors in the 115-degree Arizona heat. He lets the inmates watch only two TV channels -- the Food Channel, so they can drool at the gourmet cooking, and the Weather Channel, so they can see all the other places around the country where it's not so damn hot. In one case, the county's insurance company paid out $8 million to the family of a man who died in a restraining chair while in custody at the jail.

Arpaio says the jail webcam is just a sign that he and his officers have nothing to hide: "It's there to let the whole world know that we're doing nothing wrong. I'm tired of my officers being accused of killing people." But Eleanor Eisenberg, executive director of the Arizona Civil Liberties Union, says that the public's right to know doesn't justify the constant presence of the webcams: "The public's right to know is adequately taken care of by the existence in our jail, and virtually every other jail in the country, of video surveillance cameras that are internal and make a record: That record is a public record."

Middle Ground's Hamm even suggests that the "shakedown," which is marketed on the sites as the first one in four years at the jail, is "a staged event for the webcam ... It's a titillating opportunity for the viewers to see something other than prisoners standing around doing nothing. It wasn't exciting enough, so they had to stage something."

Sheriff Arpaio denies the accusation that the shakedown was staged. His position is that there is a punitive purpose for his 24-hour reality show. "Johns picking up prostitutes can wave to their wives on the Web, and drunk drivers can wave to their employers," brags Arpaio. "That might deter that segment of society." He thinks that subjecting detainees to the public eye of the Web might make petty criminals think twice before they strike again.

The only problem is, many of the people caught in the jail webcam haven't been convicted of anything. They're "pretrial detainees," says Eisenberg, many of them unable to make bail. "The people in the booking area where the webcams [are] not only haven't been convicted of a crime but haven't been charged with a crime yet ... He is acting as the judge, jury and the entire justice system without the authority to do that."

"Really all this is is a way to humiliate people who have been arrested," says Cara Gotsch, public policy coordinator for the ACLU's National Prison Project in Washington.

And what about those of us who haven't been arrested? What about those of us buying a Coke at the minimart, or sitting on a bench in a public park, or hanging out at a ballgame? The webcam at Madison Street Jail may seem like an outlandish and absurd mockery, but it can also be seen as merely the leading edge of a campaign to invade privacy unthinkable in the days before the Internet and omnipresent video cameras.

Evan Hendricks, editor and publisher of Privacy Times, sees the aggregation of images over time from the webcams at Madison Street Jail as a real threat to inmates' rights. "You could set up your computer so you could automatically check this jail cam, and you could be downloading images off of it, and later you could apply facial-recognition technology and make a database of everyone who has been arrested at that Arizona jail."

Such a database might be extremely valuable to local employers screening the people they hire. As Hendricks explains, while conviction information becomes a part of the public record, arrest information does not, and that's where the webcam changes the rules. "This whole thing is a potential end run around the traditional privacy that's developed for arrest information," says Hendricks.

Technology that can match faces to names is neither futuristic nor far-fetched, as the Super Bowl fans discovered. Nineteen "matches" were found when images of their faces were captured and compared with face-recognition technology against thousands of images of wanted criminals provided by the FBI, Secret Service and local police.

Executives at Viisage, which provided the face-recognition technology used at the Super Bowl this year, are puzzled by all the fuss about the filming of football fans, whose images were compared with thousands of images of wanted criminals provided by the FBI, Secret Service and local police. Tom Colatosti, Viisage's CEO, says: "The average person is on a surveillance camera 30 times a day. When you go to a gas station, in an elevator, in a parking lot, shopping mall, ATM, Dunkin' Donuts, 7-Eleven, highway -- surveillance is a part of our everyday life." And let's not forget casinos and banks and airports and border crossings.

"All the uproar is about the potential of what could happen," Colatosti says, by which he means the potential for databases of images to be used to track an individual from place to place. "That doesn't happen, because the images are not stored, and secondly, apart from [providing] good copy [for reporters] and paranoia, who would want to track your face? I can tell you that law enforcement has enough images in the database without cluttering it up with useless images of some fan going to a football game."

But privacy experts like Phil Agre, an associate professor of information studies at UCLA and co-editor of "Technology and Privacy: The New Landscape," says that while that kind of tracking hasn't happened yet, it's coming. "As soon as face recognition goes prime time, the world changes instantaneously overnight. You walk past a store and you get junk mail from that store. You walk into the store and the salesperson mysteriously knows your name. People going into business, selling files of who has been where -- a market springs up. I'm not saying the consequences are all bad -- it has law enforcement and crime protection as well as Big Brother kind of consequences."

Already, throughout the borough of Newham in London, 300 cameras monitor the streets looking for known criminals. "If you institute this properly, you can get the support of the public," says Frances Zelazny of Visionics, the company that makes the face-recognition technology used in Newham. "You always have the fringe, but in general this is a neighborhood where people feel afraid."

But is it worth it to trade a fear of crime for a fear of being watched? The EFF's Steele believes that as people become more aware of how their images are being captured and used, there will be a backlash: "I do suspect that people are going to kind of grab back their privacy rights at some point, but we're not there yet."

Hendricks also thinks that there will be a backlash to the intrusion, but by then the cameras won't just be everywhere -- they'll be hooked together: "These cameras will be integrated into a network just the way that computers were by the Internet."

There are some small efforts to combat the proliferation of this style of public broadcasting. In Arizona, state Rep. Gabrielle Giffords recently introduced legislation that would require notification of video surveillance in public places, but the bill languished in committee and then was superseded by another bill (which also died) that would have created a committee to study the issue. Giffords plans to reintroduce the legislation next session.

Still, for now it seems that we have as much control over our images in public spaces as do the inmates of Madison Street Jail. "If you're in a public place, you don't have much defense, unless your image is being used for commercial purposes," says Thomas Coleman, author of "It's Mine, Not Yours! Take Back Your Personal Information and Privacy." And if there used to be no easy way for the images from the cameras in the Madison Street Jail to make it into your living room, now there's an easy way for your own image to go places that you can't even picture.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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