ashfield robbery and the right to privacy

Saturday, 10 February 2001 NSWCCL media release: 3/2001


The proliferation of the use of surveillance cameras in public is undesirable and any move to increase public surveillance of people should be opposed. Public surveillance and the publishing of people’s movements can and usually does constitute a breach of an individuals right to privacy. 

The recent incident in Ashfield NSW where photos were published on a website entitled “Wanted Dead or Alive” also raised several concerns. While NSWCCL has sympathy for those who are victims of crime it supports the proper administration of justice and the rule of law. It is not appropriate for people to take the law into their own hands. 

People have a clear right to privacy that should allow them to go about their business in peace without being subjected to photographic surveillance. This principle is valid both in terms of public and also more importantly private use of surveillance camera’s. There is now a proliferation of the use of public surveillance cameras that breach people’s privacy and this needs to be curtailed. Cameras are now commonplace in and around commercial buildings, taxi cabs, public transport and streets. It is also of great concern that there is an increase of so called ‘private’ cameras used in a public way through broadcast or publishing of private images. 

In these cases the individual photographed often has no legal right to control the use of those images. They cannot control the way they are portrayed and only in exceptional circumstances can they prevent others making profit from the use of their images as in the Andrew Ettingshausen case. 

The Ashfield situation even though cameras were installed in a “private home” raises several important issues: 

1. Everyone should be entitled to conduct their own business in their private home and if they wish to photograph themselves and publish those pictures of themselves they may. 

2. The publication of pictures of others without consent, even if photographed in a private home can constitute a breach of the right to privacy. Once the pictures are published or broadcast, as in the Ashfield case, they are no longer private pictures. To give alternative examples, photographing without consent a houseguest in the shower, your partner using the bathroom or even someone just walking around the lounge-room and then publishing those photographs on the Internet is of great concern and a privacy breach. Consent should be obtained, certainly before publication and ideally before initial photographing of people. Just because you may suspect someone of a robbery as in the Ashfield scenario it shouldn’t negate these principles. Two wrong’s do not make a right. 

3. Publication of the Ashfield pictures has lead to a public exercise of “shaming” the people suspected of the robbery. Through this process they have been publicly ‘convicted’ without the opportunity of a fair legal trial. Everyone is entitled to natural justice and fairness no matter how overwhelming the evidence that may initially point to their guilt. 

4. The practical consequences are that the Ashfield suspects will probably alter their identity, or flee the area making them harder for police to catch. The NSW Police Service has made public comments to this effect. This ultimately is not beneficial to the justice system or the ‘victim’. 

5. Arrest should be left to the proper authorities, as there is great danger in citizens’ arrests with scenarios such as mistaken identity, over use of force and persecution or torture of suspects, resulting in legal damages as the common result. The Pictures were published on a website entitled “Wanted – Dead or Alive”. This sort of vigilantism should be discouraged. 

6. Pre trial publicity may well jeopardize the prosecution of offenders or extend the legal process until publicity has diminished. This is of no benefit to either the ‘victim’, the accused, or the general community. 

7. In the Ashfield case, for example it could have been people with a lawful, or genuine reason, for being there that were photographed and portrayed as robbers on the Internet. For example police exercising a search warrant lawfully taking items from the premises, a fireman evacuating the building, a neighbour breaking in to use the phone in a life threatening emergency. 

In contrast the NSWCCL and other organisations worked successfully with Sydney City Council for several years prior to the introduction of ‘street safety cameras’ in the Sydney George Street precinct. The results include: 

1. Cameras are operated by trained staff to avoid misuse e.g. focusing on body parts or other undesirable activity. 

2. Footage is destroyed regularly, after it is no longer useful and its destruction is carefully monitored. 

3. Generally only crimes against the person are sent to the police for investigation and minor offences such as drug use, littering, jaywalking etc are not reported. 

4. A committee including NSWCCL representatives is used to monitor the ongoing operation of the camera’s and their continued merits. 

5. Images are not sold, or provided to others without strict control. That is there is no financial benefit derived as a motive of their use. 

Often cameras are placed, with the best of intentions, as a deterrent to crime but this can easily lead to misuse of images resulting in breaches of privacy. It is important to develop laws to protect the right to privacy so that the public is reassured that cameras work properly and so that the operators understand their responsibilities. 

Cameron Murphy 
NSW Council for Civil Liberties Inc.