Documentation Without Incrimination

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After composing this series of tweets, a friend has asked me to put together a blog post on how to document a demonstration without incriminating its participants.

It is common knowledge that photos and videos of people’s faces may be used by agents of the state to identify, and thus implicate individuals in criminal investigations. To thwart this identification process, many protesters opt to wear masks, and many photographers and videographers take care not to include faces in their documentation. While a good first step, this is not sufficient to prevent law enforcement from using your photos and videos to identify, and thus prosecute, protesters.

Biometric identifiers, which are unique characteristics/traits that may be used to distinguish (and thus identify) individuals, expand far beyond unmasked faces. Some other metrics by which people may be identified include their build, the shape of their eyes and/or ears, the size of their hands and/or feet, their posture, their gait, their voice, and their speech patterns. Additional identifiers may include a person’s attire (clothing, shoes, bags, etc.), piercings, visible tattoos, and scars.

Where this gets complicated is, even if you, personally, do not capture a single face, your camera is never the only camera present. If you capture a distinguishing feature of any kind in an image or video of windows being broken or walls being spray painted, that can be cross-referenced with other footage of the crowd, and used to single out and identify suspects.

A hand with a tattoo on it clutching a hammer as a window shatters, or a sneaker with a pink midsole being captured kicking a police car may be the only thing needed to poke through footage from security cameras as the crowd passed by, high-resolution wide-angle shots of the crowd taken by journalists, or any other source of data that may have captured bits of the action.

To this end, if you care about documentation without incrimination, it is generally best practice to make sure that you do not capture any human body parts in your documentation of bonfires, broken windows, spray-painted walls, or torched police cars. This includes people’s backs, miscellaneous limbs, and reflections caught in windows.

Additionally, if you DO capture human bits in your images or videos, it is a good idea to blur those details, using ObscuraCam or a similar tool, to the point of being indistinguishable before publication. Additionally, it is important to DELETE THE ORIGINAL, UNALTERED PHOTOS AND/OR FOOTAGE. Data stored is data that can later be subpoenaed in a court case, which would defeat the purpose of your editing process.

Finally, when taking photos or video of protestors, it is always a good idea to ask for consent first. Whether or not you condone potentially criminal behavior is irrelevant: it is unnecessary for us to do the work of the State and Police when at an event protesting their actions.