Security Risks of Street Photography

Interesting article on the particular art form of street photography. One ominous paragraph:

More onerous are post-9/11 restrictions that have placed limits on photographing in public settings. Tucker has received e-mails from professionals detained by authorities for photographing bridges and elevated trains. “There are places where photographing people on the street may become illegal,” observes Westerbeck.


Posted on July 13, 2005 at 8:38 AM39 Comments


Flynn July 13, 2005 9:03 AM

I had a friend who this happened to in New York. He was trying to photo the roofline of the Trinity Church during a sunset, but because the backdrop included a federal office building, some guy came running out screaming “hey you! You can’t take a picture here!”

Interestingly, the guy failed to identify himself except as “a federal agent.” I wish I’d been there. I would have requested credentials and a badge number.

Grasshoppermind July 13, 2005 9:06 AM

This is interesting to say the least! Especially given the recent release of Google Earth and the huge takeup of geotagging, particularly amongst Flickr users. I think that the horse has already left the stable.

Nick July 13, 2005 9:16 AM

Compare and contrast

Police are appealing to the public to hand over mobile phone images, video footage or photographs taken after Thursday’s bomb attacks on London.
They believe the footage could provide vital clues as the search for bodies and forensic evidence continues.

Michael Pereckas July 13, 2005 9:49 AM

Yet businesses and government are free to put cameras (hidden and overt) just about anywhere, and keep the video and use it for any purpose at any time.

Peter July 13, 2005 9:50 AM

Slightly ironic given that the London police are appealing for members of the public to send in photographs they may have taken near the scenes of the bomb attacks in case these reveal anything interesting.

So we all need to carry cameras around but we mustn’t use them until after there is an incident!

AC July 13, 2005 10:10 AM

Aww, in the time the countries like USSR existed, there was a rule there that nobody was allowed to photograph most of public objects. I alwas found it more than stupid. Anybody who really wants to spy anything can certainly without problem use some hidden camera, completely unnoticed. Such rules just annoy decent people. Makes me wonder what’s next for USA. How was it, land of …?

Michael Ash July 13, 2005 10:16 AM

Am I the only one who thinks that USA 2005 sounds more and more like USSR 1975? Having to show papers for most long-distance travel, arbitrary imprisonment of people considered dangerous by the government but without a trial, and now restrictions on photography of government property. What’s next, getting sent to Guantanamo for saying that the President is an idiot? (With a much worse penalty because you revealed a state secret, of course, not because you criticized the government….)

I just hope that the pendulum swings back in a few years, as it usually does.

Nick B. July 13, 2005 10:17 AM

The US government is just trying to compensate for pathetic security and improper spending.

Instead of stopping people from photographing buildings and areas (a harmless practice), why don’t we concentrate on watching the sales of bomb-making materials, crack down on fake passports, or check into terrorist suspects?


Tobias July 13, 2005 10:21 AM

This isn’t sad, this is outright silly. Am I going to be arrested when I travel to the US while I’m sightseeing with my camera? What’s the tourist business saying about this? Or camera manufacturers?

I’d rather stay at home than spend my hard earned vacation Euros in the US for being arrested because I behaved like a typical tourist.

And there’s another side to this. After the London attacks the police has asked the public to send in ANY private images or movies that might help finding the murderers from the scenes of terror. I remember a James Bond movie where the picture of a tourist woman of a merchant vessel helped James Bond to find his next clue. This is in stark contrast to disallowing fotographing in public.

Ed T. July 13, 2005 10:23 AM

I have also been hearing stories of photographers (both pro and amateur) getting stopped by “authorities” — in fact, I was stopped once myself, in the office building where I work. It seems there was a rule against “unauthorized photography”, though to be “authorized” you just had to notify the building manager. When I asked why this wasn’t a published rule, the response had something to do with “a matter of security”. Talk about security through obscurity!

In addition, I just love the times when someone has been spotted photographing a refinery/bridge/building, and the police want the person turned in so they can “talk to him”. While reminding folks that photography in public places is NOT a criminal act, they sure make it out as if the poor photog is the Second Coming of UBL himself.

And, on a side note, I bet the policemen who beat the living hell out of Rodney King wish that photography had been outlawed.

Rich July 13, 2005 10:39 AM

I work in NYC and love street photography as a hobby. I live relatively close to Manhattan — and have spent countless weekends wandering the streets with my old Nikon FM2. It’s sad that we’ve come to this — subway photography was banned after 9/11 and now photographers are being hassled for shooting on the street. Not to mention with the new technology out there that enables consumers to covertly photo areas (like camera phones, tiny digital cameras, etc) the person who is overtly taking a picture is most likely either a tourist or artist. Come on guys!

There’s been a lot this type of nonsense in NYC lately, recently they shut off cell service in all tunnels due to fears that they can be used to remotely detonate a bomb. I think this is assanine — especially since the tunnels are so unpredictable that the terorist would have to have ‘eyes on’ the bomb to ensure that it was actually in the tunnel (and not stuck at the toll booth) when it detonates.

Gartner Group wasted no time in chiming in that a cellphone can be used to detonate a bomb too. Well so can a walkie talkie, wristwatch, GPS, bluetooth device, etc.

Chris Wysopal July 13, 2005 11:03 AM

I was photographing Mt. Ranier from the top floor of the SeaTac Airport parking garage. I did this for about 10 minutes and got all the pictures I wanted. As I was packing up when a SeaTac employee drove over to me and told me I couldn’t take pictures here. I said “I can’t take pictures of Mt. Ranier?” He said, “not from here you can’t.”

Since I had gotten my pictures and needed to go to my plane I didn’t ask him for the regulation that gave the airport the authority to control my picture taking on their property. The incident got me thinking that this is actually counterproductive to security. Here is a airport employee wasting his time preventing someone from taking a picture of a mountain. There has to be a better use of his time to maintain security at the airport. Enforcing no picture taking laws is just a distraction.

I had another incident during the Democratic National Convention in Boston. I went down to take pictures of the “free speech pen” [] but also took some pictures of the security checkpoints were they were inspecting cars before they went inside a metal fence. I fired off about 5 pictures before one of the police officers in full riot gear told me I couldn’t take pictures there. So I walked away with my pictures safely stored on my compact flash card wondering what was the point. I got the pictures but I apparently couldn’t take more without risking arrest.

I like Bruce Schneier’s term for all this: “security theater”.


jason July 13, 2005 11:26 AM

This site has a pdf document that outlines many legal rights of photographers and has some tips on what to do/how to respond if harrassed while taking pictures in a public place. The doc was last updated July ’04, so recent impairments of related civil liberties may not be covered.


Brett July 13, 2005 12:05 PM

Great, my wife and have a vacation to NYC planned for Sept 8th – 14th. I’m planning on taking lots of images of buildings and such, one because my wife likes to scrapbook (watchout – something new to make illegal) and I love architecture. Now, how much extra money do you suppose I need for bail? Oh, wait, there won’t be any bail, I will be arrested but not know why and won’t be allowed to call anyone.

Our country is going down hill rapidly. I had hoped that there was a limit to stupidity, but I quess I am wrong.

AnonOne July 13, 2005 12:11 PM

The USSR had the no public photo rule because the KGB were trained to ‘operate’ in public areas.

david July 13, 2005 12:29 PM

My (bi) daughter has been threatened by Baltimore City police for photographing the street signs at Baltimore and Gay streets, due to a city police station at that corner.

Clive Robinson July 13, 2005 12:45 PM

An artical that appeared in the London Metro today, and was about youths taking photos at an accident.

Apparently a teanager had become impaled on their pushbike and other teenagers got out their phone cammeras to take photos.

Apparently they where very agressive and the police had to be called by the paramedics attending the sceen.

We also have a distressing occurance in the UK where a gang will beat up a randomly selected stranger whilst some of the gang send photos on their mobile phones to other gangs etc.

It was reported that a teenage girl who was the victim of one of these atacks was terorised by people who had seen the photos and had subsiquently attempted suicide.

Jacob Appelbaum July 13, 2005 1:32 PM

People are extremely paranoid about photography post 9/11. Many places from security guards to actual police will try to enforce pretend laws that they can’t explain or cite when pressed.

I’ve found myself told on more than one occasion that I’m breaking the rules by photographing a building or by taking a picture of a famous structure. Or perhaps it’s the outside of a building and the company security guard threatens to remove me from the public sidewalk.

I’ve even had random people on the street ask me why I’d ever do such a thing as photograph the bay bridge or the city from Treasure island. Although it’s rare that they’ll state I’m helping terrorists, they’re still often put off by the documentary nature. Why take photos of something? Why put them on the internet for all to view for free?

The muni or BART are perfect examples of this. People often ask why I’d take a photo inside a train station or on a train. Regardless of my answer, I feel most people think it’s actually illegal and think that would be rightfully so.

The thing that I find happening more often than not is the use of laws previously not enforced. I’ve been threatened with arrest in San Francisco’s Presidio under Public Law 106-206.

Interestingly enough the police officer in that case considered that I was a commercial photographer even though he could not prove it. He asked me to prove my innocence by showing how I wasn’t a professional, what with my tripod and well dressed friends. I asked him to cite the law that said well dressed locals (I lived three blocks from the incident) were in violation of the law simply because they understood evening photography required a tripod. He ran all of our names for warrants, searched us pathetically and basically just threatened me with arrest a dozen more times if he caught me “red handed” taking photos here anymore.

Absolute bullshit.

It’s awful that people think we’re more secure and more free when I’m unfree to take a photograph.

Davi Ottenheimer July 13, 2005 1:35 PM


Thanks for the link, but let me describe two personal incidents that for me capture the essence of the problem:

1) Third-world country with little/no infrastructure, violent past, and present overtly militant tendencies. I had been taking photos liberally of trees, beaches, etc. and running finding very little resistance or issue. If anything, I was getting along nicely with people who were curious any willing to play along (pose). One afternoon I saw a cute little shed overgrown by banana palms and bushes. I aimed my camera and snapped a picture. Suddenly three soldiers/police lept out from behind the shed and hustled towards me, hailing me and waving their arms. They walked right up to me and tried to grab my camera and pull it away. A crowd formed tightly around me as I argued and all together we protested against having my camera taken away, or perhaps worse. In the end, I was able to show my picture to the soldiers and they agreed to let me go, to the pleasure of the crowd.

2) Desolate border crossing New Mexico/Mexico, 2002. I noticed a yellow school bus parked next to a line of yellow metal posts in the desert. I was walking among a group of Americans returning from a tiny Mexican border-town. I pulled out my digital camera and took a picture of the school bus/posts. I was about 100 ft from the American border structure, and I was shooting the picture off to the left of the building, completely away from the structure and towards the empty desert. No sooner had I snapped the picture than an American border patrolman came running out of the building with his hand on his holster yelling “You with the camera, stop right there!” The other Americans dispersed and moved quickly away from me.

The officer approached me directly and said I was in violation of the federal act of 1929 prohibiting photographs of government buildings and therefore he had to confiscate my camera.

I honestly thought the guy was suffering from heat exhaustion and insanity from his time in the desert, or perhaps even camera envy. Nonetheless, I tried to reason with the guy as a fellow American. I guess I assumed this would go much better than the above-mentioned run-in with paramilitants in a third-world country (where no laws even existed to be referened).

I took a step back and said, “here, just look at the image for yourself. I only took one artistic photo of a school bus in the desert, not a federal building”. I showed the picture to the officer with the LCD screen. The image was angled slightly, but it clearly showed a yellow bus and one yellow post, in the desert. Nothing else could be seen.

The officer reached his hand towards me and said, slightly out of breath, “Did you hear me? You are in violation of the law by taking photographs in a restricted space. I will have to confiscate your camera. That is the law.”

I protested a little, asking for more details on the law and why I was a threat to national security, but I could tell I wasn’t getting anywhere. Even the heat was opressive. With the LCD screen facing the officer, I eventually was forced to press the delete button and watch my picture disappear. The next photo showed a woman walking down a dusty road in Mexico.

The officer seemed satisfied at this point. He warned me again about abiding by the law and remembering that America is different now (after 9/11). He then turned and retreated to the building, where we met again a short few minutes later and I was allowed to return into the US with my camera and its reduced set of images.

To this day, I have been unable to find the law this crazed madman was referring to.

I am certain you will draw your own comparison/conclusions, but from a first-person perspective as a security professional I found surprising differences in approach between the lawless paramilitary muscle of a third-world country and an American officer at the border:

1) I was apparently able to reason with lawless paramilitary (perhaps as they were in a self-appointed position to make “official” decisions) yet not a US border guard who seemed stuck on referencing obscure laws that do not seem to exist (and could not be produced) and a tragic past event that had little/no relevance to the situation at hand.

2) The bystanders in the third-world country were interested and even actively involved in assessing a public situation and standing up for their common rights, whereas the Americans appeared to shy away and look for self-cover when authority figures appear.

Combined, these differences may actually support the idea that a group effort is required to truly protect freedom and liberty from (a virtually arbitrary) tyranny. Also, these experiences give perspective to the ongoing complaints I see and hear from other travellers; that since 9/11 people are more likely to be treated with common respect and humanity outside the US than within.

Jacob Appelbaum July 13, 2005 1:51 PM


I find that the best way to keep your photos on your card is to just tell them no. Refuse to erase and walk away.

Deny them the ability to pressure you and be ready to get arrested for it. It’s a basic form of dissent. Most officers won’t actually arrest you for photography when they’re called to task. I find telling them you’re going to sue for wrongful arrest or destruction of evidence if they touch your flash card is enough to get them to try to cough up the law.

If they can’t find any laws, ask if you’re free to go and if you are, walk away.

Carry the important local/state/federal public laws in your camera bag and be ready to cite them.

Be relentless and don’t let them pressure you. If they try, document them and refuse to stand for their bullshit.

Also, try to document them and their threats, photograph them and blog about it. Make it a public issue and let the police know where we stand when we’re in the legal right.

They work for you, they’re paid with our tax dollars.

David July 13, 2005 2:38 PM

What are the laws around this? Are all the guards just giving grief, or could you really be convicted of something by taking such pictures. It seems that anything in public is supposed to be public — there’s no right to privacy for individuals in public. And clearly there are cameras everywhere, and they are not violating the law even though the pictures often include areas outside of their own property. Or are those cameras technically illegal now too?

jbl July 13, 2005 3:18 PM

“It could be worse – in France, the owners of the Eiffel Tower claim copyright on photos of it at night!”

In the last several years movies that have included the Hollywood sign ( have included a copyright (!) notice acknowledging the organization that owns the sign.

I thought scenery could be included in a movie or photograph, regardless of whether it grew there or someone put it there.

John R Campbell July 13, 2005 3:57 PM

I noticed the “Photography Prohibited” signs for the Goethals Bridge and the “No Video or Still Photography” signs at the V-Z when I was up in Staten Island for vacation… and it struck me:

Are we living in an occupied country?

Now either this is all about denying the use of a bridge for recon purposes (height, etc) or, well, my mind is drawing a blank.

I did not see any sign like that at the TZB, though.

On another thread… I’ve noticed that “E-Z-Pass” lanes are widespread but the cash lanes are not, so, it strikes me, that the E-Z-Pass transponder is being encouraged to render more people trackable.

The odd thing is that, being an out-of-towner, I won’t have such a transponder, so it’s only really useful for tracking those who cross a bridge on a consistent basis– and, so, there’s not much value in surveillance.

So what are we securing? And from whom?

RvnPhnx July 13, 2005 4:56 PM

@ Jacob Appelbaum
You will find it noted that when dealing with customs officials you have NO RIGHTS WHATSOEVER. It has been this way for as long as I’ve been concious of the outside world. It is that way ostensibly to make it easier to stop trafficers of illegal wares (read “drugs”, whatever the hey that means this week)–but more and more I hear from my friends that it is just being used to harrass them by overly bored border guards. This is very unfortunate since it makes it virtually impossible to hold them accountable for anything. You will also note that they can confiscate anything from you, for any reason (and they don’t have to tell you what that may be), and that they do not have to provide you with any record of the “transaction” in any way shape or form. This is all right out of the mouth of the head of customs on “60 Minutes” a few months back. You now know why I haven’t bothered to leave the US of A, lest I have to put up with that kind of BS just to get back home (that, and I’m perpetually broke due to loans & such).

ken williams July 13, 2005 6:02 PM

A few worthwhile links on this topic …

Humiliated, Angry, Ashamed, Brown
(VERY interesting first-hand account of photographer’s assorted hassles when trying to take a few pictures)

NOT illegal to photo in NYC subways
(interesting discussion with some good links)

The 1st Amendment Handbook from The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

The Photographer’s Right – A Downloadable Flyer
Your Rights When You Are Stopped or Confronted for Photography

of course, all of the pedophiles taking pictures of children in public aren’t helping either …

photographing children in public

Years ago, when “No Cameras” and “No Photography” signs were rarely seen, people noted that “No Photography = No History”.


P.S. I highly recommend listening to the new Pro-Pain CD entitled “Prophets of Doom” while perusing the above links.

kw July 13, 2005 6:58 PM

after reading some of these articles, you have to wonder how sites like and cryptome still exist though. well maybe not … after 9/11, i wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Jim Bell had been kidnapped by a rogue Freemason cell led by Katie Holmes, and sacrificed to the alien recarnation of L Ron Hubbard.


Babel July 13, 2005 7:24 PM

Saddam built a compound on top of a hill near the (historic) Tower of Babylon. All the pre-war tourist guides said: “Whatever you do, do NOT take pictures of the buildings on the top of the hill. It would be very bad.”

You can bet there are a zillion Polish soldiers with pictures of the insides and outsides of that place now.

Fred F. July 13, 2005 7:27 PM

What I find so stupid is that you can buy good pictures of almost any place. Evenmore special forces are trained to make hand sketches from memory. I would think any good operative with a reason to do damage could very easily do the same. It is yet another version of security theater.

Christian Kaiser July 14, 2005 5:55 AM

A question, slightly but not totally off-topic:

Here in Germany we recently read about a “kindergarten” in the US which reduced colors of pencils as the kids did draw rainbow arcs, which is – presumed to be, I don’t know – an icon of homosexuality.

Does that really protect the kids from anything? Isn’t something going wrong? Isn’t this an example of a case of going too far, straight into nonsense?


Bill McGonigle July 14, 2005 1:25 PM

There’s still plenty of commercial photography that goes on. They seem to be mostly harassing the lone hobbyist.

Note to terrorists: if you want to take pictures of ‘protected’ buildings, wear lots of silk and hire a hot chick for the day to stand in the foreground of your subjects. You can crop her out later. Oh, and act ludicrous and yell at your assistant for not handing you film faster, even if you’re shooting digital. The guards will recognize you as a professional and leave you alone.

andrew July 14, 2005 2:34 PM

God bless you all for the comments….thank you..still howling..although it is sad….that Bush has turned us into Fear addicts

John R Campbell August 11, 2005 1:58 PM

I used to check up on what the weather looked like up in the New York area (I grew up on Staten Island) and so used, from Florida, the “V-Z BridgeCam” to check on the sky, etc (and, from FL, the pics of snowstorms were entertaining to my co-workers).

Then, not quite two months ago, the camera went dark. And then the page it was hosted on vanished mysteriously as if it never was.

Now perhaps someone has decided that we have to suppress this information since it has the potential for someone to “check up” on the results of their efforts, but, really, I’m not sure this is a good thing.

It’s been said that reacting to terrorism by changing our culture automatically makes us the loser– after all, we’re surrendering the initiative.

When looked at more dispassionately, the only lasting damage of the 9/11 attacks were psychological; the actual damage done to us was, for the most part., negligable– until you factor in the induced economic panic delivered by those with a “fiduciary responsibility” to dump their stocks. (I found the cries for “patriotic stock-holding” to be just a way to unload stocks on “suckers” so the big boys could get out.)

We’ve changed, though. Each day we seem to get more and more into a siege mentality… when, in actual fact, terrorists DO NOT have the full resources needed to make widespread attacks on actual people.

So slamming planes into the WTC was a psychic more than a physical attack.

We’re scurrying to hide ourselves, aren’t we? We’re acting afraid… and our leaders seem to like the level of terror they’ve helped to ensure.

(shakes head)

Security Theater indeed.


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Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.