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Distinguishing Tourists from Terrorists

SECURITY PROFESSIONALS at sensitive or high-profile sites clearly have a legitimate interest in determining who is photographing or videotaping their facilities. But online bulletin boards dedicated to photography have been abuzz with complaints by amateur photographers that they are being harassed by police or private security when they try to photograph certain private buildings from a public area.

How does security balance the need for vigilance with respecting the rights of the public to take pictures from public property?

The right to photograph the exterior of private buildings from a public place is protected by the First Amendment, say legal experts. So absent suspicious activity, photographers snapping photos should generally be left alone. That’s the case at the Sears Tower, for example, says director of security Keith L. Kambic, CPP.

At that building, security personnel, off-duty police officers who double as doormen, are trained to learn what tourists and amateur photographers usually snap pictures of, such as the upper floors of the building or the sign identifying the building as the Sears Tower. The site is a popular tourist attraction, and building management does not want to alienate visitors, Kambic says.

Security takes note when photographers aim at less customary areas, however. “If someone is taking extensive photos of nontourist [subjects], like mechanical areas and air vents, that’s going to raise a bit of caution with us right away,” says Kambic.

An officer might question the person if his or her activities seem suspicious. “We shy away from demanding that they stop,” he explains. “If there’s that much of a concern, we get the JTTF (Joint Terrorism Task Force) or the police involved.”

This approach is markedly less aggressive than the behavior reported to have occurred at such sites as refineries and elsewhere. Bert P. Krages, II, an attorney in Portland, Oregon, who has an expertise in the rights of photographers, says he knows of more than 100 incidents in which photographers have been confronted by police or security for taking pictures of buildings from a public area. The concern is misplaced, he says.

“Why are people concerned about photography in the first place?” Krages wonders, pointing out that none of the major attacks in the last 20 years involved photography. “You’re not going to get essential information for blowing up a building from a photo.”

Maybe. But terrorists do take photos as a part of their planning. For example, a man seen taking pictures last year of the Williamsburg and Brooklyn Bridges in New York has ties to a terrorist group that is aligned with al Qaeda. Perhaps preventing the photos would not prevent the execution of the plan, but being aware of suspicious picture takers might be one way of detecting a terrorist plot in its earliest stages.

Where photographers are not behaving suspiciously, however, Krages says that security personnel should encourage photo taking, because it serves crime prevention and detection purposes. Just as victims have used camera phones to thwart or solve crimes, so might photos provide evidence of, say, a suspicious bag left at the side of a building.

Companies preventing photos from being taken might also face a public backlash, he says. For example, industrial facilities that use staff to ward off photographers might be accused of trying to hide environmental violations from the public.