Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Photographer’s Rights and Counter-Terrorism

There is an interesting article over at about a recent confrontation (actually that term might be a bit overblown) between a photographer and a police officer over the issue of taking photographs of a chemical facility. The photographer claims he was detained, but it appears from his description that he was stopped, questioned and required to show identification. The civil libertarians are incensed and the police are confused about their concern.

This is an issue that I have addressed before (most recently last December) and it is certainly a controversial issue, weighing security needs against individual freedoms. Let me see if I can outline both sides of the issue.

Counter Surveillance

It is well established that a ‘professional’ terrorist needs to collect information about their targets to aid them in the planning necessary for a successful attack. Pre-attack surveillance can take a lot of forms, but a common one would be to take photographs of the facility, particularly the security measures.

It doesn’t take a security expert to realize that detecting a potential attack early in the planning process makes it easier to disrupt the attack. This is the reason that I have frequently commented that a successful facility security program must include a counter surveillance program to try to detect potential attacks in the pre-attack planning process.

So, anytime someone is seen taking photographs of a high-risk chemical facility, there is legitimate need to determine if the photographer is potentially taking pre-attack surveillance photos of the facility.

Photographer Rights

Generally speaking photography is a constitutionally protected activity under at least three different types of free speech. Since much photography is often connected with journalistic endeavors the freedom of the press provisions may apply. Photography is also a well-recognized art form and thus protected under general freedom of expression provisions. Additionally, many political organizations, like Greenpeace, use photography to support their political agenda which is also clearly protected under free speech provisions.

So, as long as someone is not violating some other law, like trespass, it will be difficult to legally stop someone from taking photographs of a chemical facility. Even if a legitimate rationale can be found, the firestorm of protest that would result would be counterproductive to say the least.

Balancing Act

As can be seen through this article, balancing the two legitimate requirements of community security and personal liberties is going to be a hard line for police departments to follow. Private security forces are going to have even a greater problem with this as there are already too many people that think such forces are a threat to civil liberty in the first place.

A great deal of care and planning is going to have to go into any encounter with someone taking photographs of a chemical facility. Security managers are going to have to think the process through and establish specific guidelines for such encounters and make sure that they are frequently covered in their security training program.

The presumption that is going to have to guide these encounters is that the vast majority of people taking such photographs are not terrorists. If security personnel can keep that in mind they will be better able to avoid taking a confrontational approach with the photographer. The goal should be to determine if there is anything in the actions or demeanor of person that is not in keeping with an innocent reason for taking the pictures. If there is, that should be reported to law enforcement authorities for follow-up investigation.

Remember, even if the photography is in support of pre-operational planning for a terrorist attack, it does not mean that an attack is imminent. The simple act of professionally talking to the photographer might be enough of a show of security presence to convince the terrorist organization to look for an easier target.

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