Public privacy?

The Atlanta Journal recently reported on plans to increase video surveillance in downtown Atlanta. This was quickly decried as an ever-greater violation of our privacy. That viewpoint rests on a faulty assumption, namely that our right to privacy extends into the public arena. In short, there is no privacy for public actions, only private actions.

The right to privacy is a natural right and as with all natural rights we must act in order to secure this right. Just as we work to secure our right to life, so must we work to provide ourselves with the tools that secure our right to privacy (e.g. shelter and clothing). Once these tools are secured, we have established our private-public boundary. Any uninvited breach (e.g. trespass, eavesdropping, thermal imaging, “peeping”, personal searching, etc.) of that boundary is a violation of our right to privacy.

Once we exit the private realm and enter the public arena there is no longer a boundary (other than clothing) that can be breached. There is no reasonable expectation that we will not be observed or if we are, that it is incumbent upon any observer to cease such observation. Natural rights cannot obligate others to act in order for us to secure our rights. For example, the right to life is sustained by inaction of others (i.e. not killing us). Conversely the right to life cannot obligate others to act unwillingly on our behalf (i.e. provide us with food without anything in return). In the same way, a demand for “privacy” when in public would obligate others to act (e.g. cover their eyes and ears). No person has the right to forcefully obligate another to act on their behalf.

So, if it is unreasonable to expect people to shield their senses from us when we are in public, then: Is it ok for a person to observe another person in public? Is it ok for a person to draw what they publicly observe? Is it ok for a person to more efficiently draw what they publicly observe (e.g. use a camera)? Yes to all, but at this point some might hesitate and suggest permission is required or even “no”. But why? It is an emotional response, as there is no logical difference between observing and drawing versus observing and snapping a photo. The latter is merely a more efficient tool to accomplish the former. I can dig a hole with my hands or with a backhoe. The backhoe is a whole lot more efficient, but both processes are still the same: digging.

Public cameras are merely tools that facilitate that which is unobjectionable (a cop standing on a street corner watching people) to be more efficiently accomplished. Legitimate concerns have been raised that public cameras are wasteful because they don’t accomplish the desired goal in a monetarily efficient manner. Also abuse such as stoplight camera “gaming” (adjusting yellow light duration) is common. Inefficiency and abuse are valid reasons to object to such monitoring, but privacy concerns are not. If our laws only protected natural rights rather than trying to legislate behavior there would be little objection to such monitoring. Absent abuses of power or waste, we should be more concerned with the nature of the laws rather than the method of their enforcement.