Livestream craze raises privacy questions


A file photo of a woman runing on an icy crosswalk in the Woodley Park neighbourhood of Washington, DC. In an era where cameras and microphones are everywhere – from the pocket where you keep your smartphone to your front doorbell to the little speaker on the kitchen counter that will tell Amazon to bring you more paper towels – a livestream of a street corner isn't all that unusual in 2021. — AFP

SALEM: Nearly 1,000 people were watching Tuesday afternoon when a school bus went through a North Salem intersection without stopping.

It was the second day that a camera had been aimed at the intersection and the view livestreamed on the gaming platform Twitch. (An earlier livestream had shown another nearby intersection, until a resident expressed concerns about privacy and people showing up to mug for the camera.)

The chat box – placed strategically over a nearby home to hide it from the camera's view – jumped with comments.

In an era where cameras and microphones are everywhere – from the pocket where you keep your smartphone to your front doorbell to the little speaker on the kitchen counter that will tell Amazon to bring you more paper towels – a livestream of a street corner isn't all that unusual in 2021.

The level of interest might be, though, as more than 200,000 people have "followed" the stream, making a game of counting vehicles that stop, that roll, that "zoom" past the red stop sign. The stream took off when another website highlighted it earlier this month.

"It's the new legal frontier," said Salem police Acting Chief Dennis King. "It is a new area in terms of defining the boundaries of privacy."

But as long as the camera isn't doing anything to intentionally harass or invade someone's privacy – and is not recording audio – it's perfectly legal.

Until recently, "if you wanted to set up cameras, it was a lot of money," said Marsha Kazarosian, a Haverhill attorney who is a past president of the Massachusetts Bar Association. So cameras were generally confined to businesses, or sometimes a large apartment building, and issues were few.

And livestreaming isn't new – businesses and tourist attractions have set up live feeds showing places like downtown Salem and Newburyport's waterfront for years.

But now, anyone with a WiFi connection and a couple of hundred dollars – or less – can set up cameras to monitor their homes inside and out. They can install a doorbell camera that will capture an image of a visitor – but also the neighbour walking the dog or pulling out of a driveway.

And that has raised privacy concerns.

US courts have held that people can legally video record or take photos in a public place where individuals have no expectation of privacy – with limits.

As an example: Someone could climb a fence or film from a second-floor window into a neighbour's yard, said Kazarosian – though she doesn't advocate doing so.

"If your neighbour knows you sunbathe in the nude, though, that's illegal," she said, citing a law against secretly filming or photographing a person who is undressed.

And Massachusetts law prohibits secretly audio recording others, which is considered a violation of the state's wiretapping law. Kazarosian tells clients to make sure they shut off the microphone on their doorbell camera and has had to tell clients who secretly recorded someone that she cannot use the recording in their case.

What's legal may not always be what's in the best interest of neighbourly relations, however. And it could, in some circumstances, be considered harassment or invasion of privacy if the camera is trained directly at someone's window or is being used to keep track of someone's visitors or comings and goings in a way that scares the target.

"It may not violate the law, but it might be considered harassment," said Kazarosian.

And curiosity could bring more people to an area that is livestreamed, creating other headaches such as traffic or noise, said King.

Last summer, the state's highest court ruled in a North Shore drug case that police now need a warrant to install a camera to watch a suspect continuously.

But that doesn't apply to ordinary citizens.

The city also has its own street cameras downtown and is considering traffic enforcement cameras, which would require special legislation.

"The government is always going to be held to a higher standard," said King, who has a law degree. "They err on the side of the person's rights."

The streamer has made a point of asking commenters not to identify the location, though some appear to have figured it out – one woman showing up on Monday morning to dance in the crosswalk and wave at the camera.

As for the stop sign scofflaws, King said the department is following up to determine the best way to handle the situation.

He noted there have been only a couple of accidents in that area in the past three years – and that police have conducted enforcement, writing 25 tickets or warnings to drivers over about that same timeframe.

And while it's not the traditional way police field complaints about traffic, King said, "we are going to say thank you for any means we can get the information." – The Salem News, Beverly, Mass./Tribune News Service

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