Viewfinder: Hidden Video Cameras

The state of world affairs has suddenly changed. We are now much more concerned about security than we were just a few months ago. We sacrifice personal privacy so that we can learn more about people sitting next to us on airplanes. Anonymity is giving way to full disclosure. In an effort to root out troublemakers, faces of people attending public events are being recorded and matched up to a computer database. Video plays a major role in this shift away from personal privacy. How will you respond?

But video technology has always allowed the capability of invading people’s privacy. Telephoto lenses, which can record people’s actions from long distances and without their knowledge, have been around for many years. If a face is recognizable in a video, the law requires that the subject sign a release agreement in order to display the video in public. In many circumstances, celebrities are exempt from this requirement because of their fame; they’ve sacrificed some of their privacy rights. That’s why we see topless or otherwise revealing photos of celebrities on the covers of certain newspapers.

Telephoto lenses, however, are less capable of invading privacy than the security industry’s latest video technology. The tiniest video cameras are a little larger than a cube of sugar. These cameras can mount onto a baseball hat and be wired to a camcorder worn on a belt. Even more covert, the signal from these cameras can wirelessly transmit up to 700 feet. You can purchase the tiny camera and wireless device usually for less than $250.

All videographers have a responsibility to use their equipment within ethical, as well as legal guidelines. Some law enforcement officials and private investigators can justify invading the privacy of the people they record. But, all other video camera operators should be certain that they have the subject’s consent. It’s the right thing to do.

In some instances, this consent can come after a recording is complete. Allen Funt, host of TV’s Candid Camera, was a pioneer in this area. Mr. Funt never obtained consent prior to recording his subjects, but he also never released the recording without the subject’s approval after he informed them of his plan. Mr. Funt justified this method, because it allowed him to record people’s real-life behavior with a hidden video camera. We all act differently in front of a camera, but to capture the true feelings of a person, Mr. Funt felt it would be best to keep the camera hidden. Candid Camera was a comedy and the audience laughed at the people on film. If people were not good sports, they would not agree to allow Mr. Funt to broadcast their likenesses on TV. Candid Camera, now hosted by Allen’s son, Peter Funt, has been on television for more than 50 years. People never seem to tire of having the ability to watch other human beings’ embarrassing moments through the viewfinder.

There are instances where this concept of gaining consent after the shooting is over can be appropriate. Testimonials are often very effective when recorded with a hidden camera, as they tend to record people’s "true feelings" about products. Folgers coffee popularized this in a TV commercial in which they "secretly switched" someone’s fresh brewed coffee with Folgers instant coffee. If you produce videos that involve testimonials, this method could prove effective for you.

Each week, several reality shows also use this method. Many police departments around the country have video cameras installed on police car dashboards to record traffic stops. And the most interesting of these recorded incidents sometimes wind up on national TV. If the person was not enticed into giving consent (via reducing the charges, for example), the video can still be used. As long as the subject is not recognizable, there is no ethical or legal violation.

Even over-the-counter Mini DV camcorders are small enough to hide from the subject while recording. As the possibility of covert video shooting becomes easier, more camera operators have to make some delicate decisions.

Do you, the videographer, roll tape whenever and wherever you can, regardless of the subject’s potential objections, in order to obtain footage that would interest some viewer’s curious tendencies, or do you refrain from such possibly embarrassing pieces of footage?

If that’s the case, the golden rule may be the best to follow in these instances, "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you."

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.