The Ethics of People-Watching

I agree with a commenter on one of the snapshots taken of the bearded guy who likes to walk his dog along the road: Taking clandestine photos of someone and posting them on the Internet is creepy. If I were standing on Craig’s deck with my binoculars birdwatching, and that guy was walking his dog down the road, I wouldn’t feel right surveilling him, and if he looked up and saw me staring at him through binoculars he’d have a right to feel mildly pissed off. I know I’d feel mildly pissed off if the situation were reversed.

I confess that I tracked that guy with the camera the first time I saw him. It’s human nature, I guess, to be curious about others, and to see what the possibilities of this new technology are. But it’s also in the nature of humans to think about situations like that after the fact, and examine how we feel. And for me, that examination has led me to the following idea, which I now propose as a norm of Sutro Forest birdcam use that I encourage others to think about, and, if they agree with me, to adopt:

I will not use the camera for surveillance of people who are not aware of its presence.

I could have stopped at the word “people,” and just made a blanket prohibition on watching humans with the camera, but in the case of people who know the camera is there and seem okay with being photographed by it, I don’t see an ethical problem. As a general rule, I assume that anyone on Craig’s deck is aware that the camera is there, and that anyone not on his desk is not aware that it’s there. But then there’s that case of the guy who was on the deck making a cellphone call, hunching away from the house and visibly trying to get a little privacy; I don’t think I’d have considered him fair game if I’d been watching the camera at the time (which I wasn’t). So I think it ends up being a case-by-case kind of thing.

I don’t think it was wrong for me to shoot the infamous Bald Eagle image (though I do worry a bit that Craig might view the joke ID as insulting, and I hope he doesn’t take it that way).

And I think the photos of the camera crew and reporter on the deck on April 23 are cool, including these shots taken by laura, finch, wayne, splait, and the last one by cnewmark himself:

But these days I don’t follow people with the camera as they walk along the road, and in one case a few days ago I actively fought for control of the camera with someone who wanted to do so, repeatedly pointing the camera at the birdbath until the guy walking down the road was out of camera range. If you agree with my views on this, I encourage you to do the same when someone is trying to use the camera for surveillance: continuously draw a tight rectangle on the birdbath. As I understand the camera’s pointing algorithm, if enough of us do that we can out-vote the people trying to watch the human.

Watching birds is fine; birds don’t mind. But as the site’s FAQ mentions in talking about the annoying automatic zoom-out functionality in the upper lefthand corner of the panorama, the camera isn’t intended for people-watching, and in the interest of protecting people’s privacy we really shouldn’t be using it for that.

3 Responses to “The Ethics of People-Watching”

  1. I have done this too. I have a shot today. I don’t think people mean any harm by it, but I think it is more like, “what the hell? People?”

    I might be more interested in the ethics of correctly trying to identify birds. It seems that some people incorrectly identify birds to keep others from gaining points. Also, there may be ethics involved in simply moving the camera away while someone is trying to get a shot. I understand if someone is trying to get a shot of something, but sometimes it is just random.

  2. kryptonkay says:

    I don’t know how many times I’am trying to get a shot and someone,(they know who they are) moves the camera to the trees or somewhere else where there are no birds around. I just want to sream at them. I don’t know why they do that? I agree not to take pics of people on the road. I move to the birdbath and I hope others do the same. 🙂

  3. vanilla says:

    Feeling that many of the cam jams are unintentional, I do, however, feel strongly about preserving the privacy of folks on the other side of the deck. I’ve encountered a few people that seem a little too interested in checking them out from time-to-time, and as you suggested, it was off to the water dish with the cam! I have been reading your blog for CONE regularly and have valued your suggestions and having the blank spots filled in…not to mention your excellent coverage of the fascinating business of classifying birds. Plaudits, elanus!

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