Do Helmet Cams Invade Privacy?

Officials say that the ban is necessary to protect people's privacy. Is that so?

Today, to talk about technology is to talk about privacy. How much of our lives should be documented? To whom should that documentation be available? How can we adequately protect the long trail of digital artifacts we are all constantly producing? All of these questions were pertinent before the Great Summer of NSA Revelations, and they are only more so now.

So perhaps it makes sense that when San Francisco's fire chief Joanne Hayes-White decided to remind her department of its ban on helmet cameras*, the reason she reached for was "privacy." Everybody wants to protect privacy, right? And so she said, "There comes a time that privacy of the individual is paramount, of greater importance than having a video."

Hayes-White, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, highlighted this bad following the death of 16-year-old Ye Meng Yuan in the Asiana plane crash last month. Footage from a helmet cam filmed during the incident shows that battalion chief Mark Johnson did not know that Ye was lying on the ground near the plane wreck, covered in fire-retardant foam, when she was run over by a fire-department rig. The San Mateo County coroner has concluded that Ye was alive when she was struck; the San Francisco Police Department is investigating her death and has a copy of the tape, according to the Chronicle.

"I think it is fairly clear," Hayes-White is quoted as saying. "Without someone's permission, videos are not to be taken." Which means, of course, no more videos.

But this justification for Hayes-White's decision is, to put it mildly, a bit suspect. Even Ye's family's own lawyer is unimpressed. "Why would anybody not want to know the truth?" he told the Chronicle. "What's wrong with knowing what happened? What's wrong with keeping people honest? That's what the helmet cam did, in effect, in this case."

It's not that privacy is immaterial -- certainly fire and police departments should have protocols in place for handling the materials: In what contexts do they get released to the public? Should faces be blurred? Names beeped? In what instances should police (or firefighters, as the case may be) turn off their cameras? What if they should have turned them off but didn't have time?

Such protocols can protect privacy, and do so as a means to other ends, ends like preventing racial discrimination and police brutality, or, as in the case of the Asiana crash, investigating a (possibly) wrongful death.

I think that this is a key point for the whole "privacy debate" that's going on right now. Too often, we talk about privacy as though privacy itself is the desired end. What if we instead understood privacy as the means that produces a host of good outcomes? Perhaps by articulating those outcomes, we could better understand what is at stake.

This is what has drawn me in the past to the work of legal scholars Daniel J. Solove and Ryan Calo. Each has taken the question of privacy and asked, what is it we are really protecting?

For Solove, whose work examines government surveillance (including but not limited to the NSA various NSA programs), the concerns are better framed not as "privacy" ones per se, but basic questions of democracy: What do you believe the relationship should be between government and citizen? How much should citizens know about what is going on, and how much should they trust the government to make good decisions on their behalf? For Calo, whose work looks at online tracking for ad sales, the questions come down to consumer protection: How can we ensure that low-information consumers aren't being manipulated into deals and other purchases that are against their own interests?

And so when the San Francisco fire chief insists that this is a measure to protect people's privacy, we should ask, what does that privacy get us? Whose interests does it serve?

This sentence has been updated to reflect that the ban was already in place, but was being newly encouraged.