Don’t tape my junk: Travelers catch surveillance fever

By | December 11th, 2010

Don’t touch my junk became a protest anthem against intrusive airport security screenings, thanks to John Tyner’s now-famous pre-Thanksgiving encounter with TSA agents in San Diego.

But the incident is part of a little-noticed trend among travelers: The confrontation was videotaped not just by airport security cameras, but also by the would-be passenger.

Tyner, an Oceanside, Calif., software developer, recorded his interaction with TSA screeners on his cell phone and posted the clips to his website, and the incident went viral within a few short hours.

Travelers may be one of the most monitored groups of Americans. Whether it’s cameras in airports, hotels or train stations, software that tracks your activity when you book online, or applications that record your customer-service calls for “quality assurance purposes,” you can be assured that someone is watching when you’re away.

And now, travelers are watching back.

Customers are taping calls and customer service interactions. They’re photographing hotels and berths that don’t meet their expectations and using the images and recordings to get the service they want.

“Cell phones can easily capture the experience in real time and be uploaded to the Internet to be shared with the world,” said Jamie Richardson, owner of Mission Possible Investigations in Albany, N.Y.

“Poor quality hotel rooms or even damaged or dirty rental cars can be captured using cell phone cameras and video technology and uploaded immediately to forums and social networking,” he added. “At times, even conversations can be captured via cell phones and used as evidence of bad and inappropriate service.”

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Instant replay

Consider what happened when one traveler suspected his car rental agent might renege on a promise to charge “no additional fees” on his vehicle: He recorded him with his phone. Later, when he was presented with a bill littered with surcharges, he called the agent and suggested the employee had been less than truthful.

“He replied, ‘I never said that’,” recalled Khun Gopyaiouankul, a retiree from Arlington, Va. “I played back the recording to him on the phone. He removed the extras from the bill.”

Indeed, some of these surveillance tactics may test the law, although Tyner’s TSA encounter apparently did not. The agency does not prohibit anyone from videotaping at screening locations.

When Kim Usiak’s friend had a disagreement with an airline ticket agent at Miami International Airport recently, she pulled out her iPhone and began recording the conversation. The airline employee threatened to call the police.

While Florida law states that both parties in a conversation must consent to being recorded, there’s an exception for “in-person” communications in a public place, where you might reasonably be overheard. The police sided with her friend, and the issue was eventually resolved.

Brush up on the rules before you become an amateur sleuth, experts warn.

“If you tape without permission, you could be sued, depending on how the information is used,” said Christopher Hadnagy, an operations manager for The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press publishes a helpful list of state statutes. You can see it here.

Easier than ever

The user-friendliness and accessibility of the technology has made it pervasive, according to industry-watchers. “Cameras embedded in a baseball cap, a book, or pen can be useful in documenting interactions with staff,” said John Nardizzi, an attorney and security expert. “I use such devices to keep an eye on my hotel room, or to monitor a spot on a beach where I keep a blanket, wallet and expensive iPhone while I swim in the sea. Easy to use, legal, relatively inexpensive.”

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Oddly, the law is sometimes different when it comes to video recording. As a matter of fact, you can frequently legally record something with video that you wouldn’t be able to as audio-only, Nardizzi said.

One solution to this problem may be a new federal law that explicitly allows people to monitor companies that monitor us. At the very least, it would allow travelers to access the recorded conversations that are routinely taped for “quality assurance purposes” so that they can verify what a representative said — or didn’t say — in a call.

“Since we live in a surveillance society, we should not be surprised that people are adapting surveillance technologies to their own ends and for their own benefit,” said Robert Gehl, an assistant professor of new media at the University of Utah. “Our culture of surveillance will almost inevitably produce people who are so comfortable with being watched that they will start watching others — with or without permission.”

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