📆 March 29, 2021 | ⏱️ 9 minute read | 🏷️ computing

Don't Record Others Without Permission

The Right to Privacy

We’ve lost the right to personal privacy to a large extent thanks to the ever-expanding corporate surveillance state. The surveillance state we all live under is getting increasing attention from non-mainstream media sources. However, something that doesn’t make the non-mainstream news is the privacy we voluntarily take away from each other by recording people without their permission.

How it used to be

This is very recent history so many of you reading this will have similar experiences. When I was in early primary school most people had dumb phones. They didn’t have mobile phones with a built-in camera. From early primary school to middle and high school (in the United States) I watched smartphones with cameras become increasingly common and eventually got one myself. Not only were there more cameras, but their audio and video quality improved dramatically. It wasn’t vague blurry media any more. Rewatching a recording was as if you were there yourself.

People don’t consider how big of a deal this is. Before camera phones, if there was a fight or some other incident in a school cafeteria, only that lunch group saw it. Actually only the few students crowded closely around even got a good look at it until school staff broke it up. That lunch group would tell their friends about it who told their friends and so on. Details of the fight would get added on, omitted and changed as the gossip spread. Only the few students that watched it were sure of what happened. The rest was hearsay. There was no video recording. It didn’t end up on social media. The students were disciplined and that was the end of that. That degree of privacy has been lost.

How it is now

If the same incident happened today, consider how it might be different. Now there’s a fair chance a student might have pulled out their high-resolution smartphone camera, recorded the incident and shared it until it ended up on social media where the corporate surveillance state would pick it up. There would be a perfect digital copy of what transpired that day, shared with the whole world. It might hurt future employment prospects of either student. It could follow either student across schools should they attend a different school. School administrators could try to get students to take the video down, but they could never be certain all the copies were deleted.

Even if it were never posted to social media, if it ended up on a single phone that gave a single Big Brother app permission to see it, the corporate surveillance state might acquire the footage anyway. It could be automatically synced to crApple iCloud or Goolag Photos. Keep in mind all of this could happen without the knowledge or consent of the involved parties. This is very bad.

Chilling Effect

I don’t want to limit the discussion to just schools either. I’m talking about everywhere. The knowledge that you can be recorded at any time in public is bound to produce a chilling effect. Better never say anything you don’t mean because someone might record it and the internet political correctness mob will cancel you, you’ll never get hired and people you don’t even know will judge you for a mistake that comprised 2 millions of a percent of your life. It’s complete insanity.

I don’t have a perfect solution for what to do about this, but it’s clearly less than ideal. Camera phones aren’t going away any time soon. Banning phones from schools infringes on student’s right to information and makes schools outdated. It causes a host of other problems too and doesn’t fix the privacy problem because same incident might happen in a public park where anyone is free to videotape it.

Social Norm 1

It would be extremely dangerous for the government to strictly regulate what citizens are allowed to record. Perhaps a better way to mitigate the privacy problem caused by everyone having mobile smartphones with cameras on their person is to make it a strict social taboo to record others without their permission. To record another person having a bad day or distressed or shouting things they don’t mean out of pure frustration and send it to others or upload it online for internet points is perverse, even if said person is in the wrong. People change. People improve. But that footage won’t reflect that and it lasts forever. How would you like for the rest of your life to be about the worst thing you ever said or did? Would that be just?

Of course there would be many exceptional circumstances. Video recordings are sometimes important. Police officers and public officials should be subject to recording just as covert investigations may require recording others without their knowledge or consent. What should happen to the recording after an investigation concludes for example is equally deserving of its own discussion and has been discussed by groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation in the context of police body cams. Then there are cases where recording others is important, but there are steps that should be taken before the footage is shared with anyone. Media coverage of protests is vital, but video footage can be used to identify the protesters. At a minimum, faces and identifiable markings should be blurred out to protect protester identities.

So that’s one side of the equation. Society needs a taboo against recording people without permission except under extenuating circumstances. The norm should be not to record people without permission, where permission means informed consent. If you lie about the reasons you want to record someone or what you plan to do with the recording, you’ve obtained bastardized consent, not real informed consent. There can’t be informed consent if the other party isn’t informed.

One last note about consent to record someone is that it’s very tricky if you’re in a position of power over the other person. In some circumstances it may not even be possible for the other person to be fully informed. Alzheimer’s patients can’t give ongoing informed consent because they forget why they’re being recorded. Recording a person with Schizoaffective disorder or Dissociative Identity Disorder is also highly suspect. In what sense is it consent if a person doesn’t have an accurate model of the world? Is it really consent if the person being recorded isn’t the same person that gave consent? These are tough questions and there are no easy answers.

Mental illnesses aren’t the only reason informed consent can be impossible. It might be impossible if there’s a large knowledge gap between the person recording and the person being recorded. Take Facecrook for instance. The average person has absolutely no idea how powerful Facecrook’s A.I. systems (or their data brokers’ A.I. systems) can get. It was used to manipulate an entire election it’s so powerful, but the average Facecrook user has no clue how that could even be accomplished and can’t even hope to understand those systems. Is that really informed consent? Some people have argued it was okay for Facecrook to manipulate the U.S. election in 2016, morally speaking, because the users clicked “I agree” years ago when they made their account. That’s so absurd. 99% of Facecrook users couldn’t have possibly known what Cambridge Analytica did was possible or the implications of it. It’s especially not informed consent if you know the person whose data you’re collecting can’t understand the full implications of how it’s used.

Recording another person is only morally just when you have consent and the other person fully understands what the recording is being used for and all the ramifications. If both of those conditions are met, then it should be morally just to do the recording, barring extraneous circumstances I already mentioned.

Social Norm 2

There is a second side to the equation when it comes to recording people. It is basically the antithesis of cancel culture. We can create the norm of disregarding or refusing to watch footage of people that were obviously recorded without their knowledge or consent. Again, this admits to extraneous circumstances, but the general rule still stands.

Imagine a man in a fast food place that starts shouting and treating the workers poorly. Is he like this all the time or is he just having a very bad day? Who knows. Perhaps his son just died yesterday and he doesn’t know how to process it. Even if that’s just the way he normally is, regularly treating service workers poorly, what good comes of recording the situation and posting it online? Shaming people generally makes them spiteful and angry. It doesn’t usually invoke their self-reflective, compassionate capacity within them. Maybe nothing would, but recording someone in a bad moment and uploading it to the internet, stoking an online hate mob to destroy their public image, that’s only going to be counterproductive.

This is why I strongly dislike cancel culture. It’s hate-based. It’s not about giving people the benefit of the doubt. It’s not about considering their capacity to become better or change. Of course having a bad day or trying to get past a horrible life event doesn’t license you to be rude to people. But that’s really a confused way of looking at it. It’s not about “license” to treat people badly. People who think it is don’t understand free will.

The fact is, for whatever reason, you have a man treating a service worker badly. But even if he has no excuse, he isn’t ultimately responsible for the way his brain is wired which inevitably pushed him into being rude to the service worker. If he were responsible for his brain wiring, that would be circular. Point being that this cancel culture of making people lose their job and lose respect should be replaced with “compassion culture”. We ought to find ways to be compassionate and help those who mistreat others rather than shaming and wanting the worst for them. Wanting people to fail and to be shamed and to hurt is a sick desire and people who possess it themselves require our empathy and compassion.


The examples I’ve given of people being recorded when they don’t want to be are situations where it would directly negatively affect the person being recorded. This isn’t always the case. If you’re vlogging walking down a public sidewalk, you’re not recording anyone in particular on purpose, but you are recording others without their consent. You should at least put black boxes over them in editing so they can’t be identified on video at any point in the future by A.I. Blurring someone out might not be sufficient to prevent future automated systems from identifying them.

The point is not only to combat cancel culture which feeds off one time incidents in people’s worst moments, but to combat the ever-expanding surveillance state abused to manipulate and control the populace. We can and should create new social norms which restore a degree of personal privacy reminiscent of the times before mobile smartphones existed.