Our Vanishing Right of Privacy

An issue came up recently where a man was upset that people in his condominium complex were using the pool and Jacuzzi late at night. He wanted to take pictures of their activities to document their behavior in his complaint to the condo board. Can he do that?

The law recognizes a limited right to prevent other individuals from invading your privacy. There is a legal doctrine that there is no right of privacy for activities that are conducting in “open view.” If this person can see the activity from a window of his condo with an ordinary camera, I do not think there is any reasonable expectation of privacy. What if he can not see them from his window, but he can walk right up to them in a common area open to all condo owners. Is that still an “open view”? Does it matter what they are doing? Is there a difference between a group of friends just partying, and a couple making love? I would not think so.

My favorite case on this subject comes from the Woodstock movie. For those of us old enough to remember, in the movie about the original Woodstock festival there is a scene where a man and a woman are running through a field of tall grass, peeling off all of their clothes, and falling down together presumably to make love. One of the stage cameras had been turned around and the operator used his high powered zoom to capture this scene which actually took place behind and far from the stage in a field where no one else was around.

Well it turns out that a man had gone to the Woodstock festival but his wife could not make it. He came home and raved to her about how wonderful the festival was. When the movie about the festival came out he insisted that they go see it together. There they were sitting in the movie theater watching the movie when up popped the image of him running through the field with some other young woman. The wife divorced him. He sued the movie producers. The court held that he had no expectation of privacy. There may have been some anti-hippie bias in that ruling.

Back to our example with the condo person. What if he had to use special equipment, a high powered zoom lens or some special night vision lens to take his pictures. Would that matter? The answer is not clear.

In a more recent case, actress Jennifer Aniston was sunbathing topless in her own backyard surrounded by a fence. A photographer standing on the public sidewalk found that if he stood  in one particular spot, using a high powered zoom lens, he was able to get a picture of her which he intended to sell to some sleazy magazine. She threatened to sue. I believe he backed down and withdrew the picture. But it would have made for an interesting case.

Nowadays, satellite images are readily available on any personal computer. For example, many aerial details can be seen by using Google Maps. Does that change our reasonable expectation of privacy? An environmental group took a series of aerial photographs of the California coast, including the yard and house belonging to Barbra Streisand. She had chosen to live in a house set far back from the highway to maintain her privacy. She sued for invasion of privacy (and other claims) and lost. That type of photography is now readily available in Google Maps. Does that mean that we no longer have any right to privacy in our backyards?

That is why I love this area of law. There are no clear rules. And with advances in technology, the law is constantly changing. One of the effects is that the amount of our lives that is protected by the right of privacy is constantly shrinking. What do you think?

One Response to Our Vanishing Right of Privacy

  1. Dalton says:

    KcKQVX Good point. I hadn’t thought about it quite that way. 🙂

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