Pratfalls on CCTV: Public property?
"If I fall into a shopping mall fountain while I'm engrossed in texting, do I have any right to feel aggrieved when the footage appears on YouTube?"
When I rang the Google press office today with that question, YouTube's owners told me it was the most unusual inquiry they had received all day. Apparently, they have been busy with some other news.
But seriously, the case of Cathy Cruz Marrero and the viral video of her tumbling into a fountain does raise important questions about privacy in the age of constant surveillance.
Ms Marrero was walking through the Berkshire shopping mall in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, totally absorbed in her mobile phone - a not uncommon sight. What she did not spot was that she was heading straight for the fountain.
The fact that she ended up drenched would have been a matter solely for her and a few passers-by, if the incident had not been caught on the shopping mall's security cameras. Someone connected with the mall appears to have filmed the CCTV footage on a mobile phone, and then uploaded it onto YouTube.
Where, of course, it has proved a huge hit. The unfortunate texter is not amused - in fact she is threatening to sue the shopping mall's management.
Some are accusing her of a sense of humour failure, but you can see her point. Closed circuit television is installed to catch criminals and give the rest of us an added sense of security, not to capture entertaining footage for viral videos. How happy would you be if you were pictured falling over in the street - perhaps while gazing into the eyes of someone you shouldn't be with?
Hence my phone call to YouTube's owners. They responded with this:
"YouTube has clear policies that prohibit inappropriate content on the site. A 'flag' button underneath every video to enable any user to report inappropriate content, or any content that they feel invades their privacy. If uploaders repeatedly break these rules we disable their accounts."
Now I am not sure what the legal situation is in the United States, but a call tot Britain's data protection regulator revealed that anyone who did something similar with CCTV footage here could be in deep trouble. The Information Commissioner's office told me that it's fine to release images to the police but "it would not be appropriate to disclose them to the media or put them on the internet for entertainment purposes."
In other words, if you're a bored security guard and you spot something funny on the camera, just have a laugh but put your mobile camera away.