Photography Ban on New York City Subways

by Derek Vadala

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Monday, January 10th is the last day to submit a comment on the proposed photography ban on New York City subways. If you don't know about the ban, you can read more at the Straphanger's web site or please submit a comment against the ban by using this form. N.B.: The form can be confusing at first glance. There are several screens to click through before your message is sent.

My letter to them follows:

Other New Yorkers have argued against the subway photography ban, citing economic (tourism), artistic, and even safety (documenting incidents or unsafe conditions) as reasons to strike down the proposed ban. These arguments may have merit, but they sidestep the real issue: Banning photography within the New York City subway system will not deter criminals or hamper terrorists. The proposed ban will only restrict the rights of law-abiding citizens and tourists.

Digital photography has become widespread, making cameras cheap, powerful, and small (concealable). Cameras are no longer easy to identify. They can be integrated into cell phones and personal digital assistants or concealed in hand bags, hats, or virtually any other object. Many digital cameras even come disguised as other objects—pens are a common example.

Anyone that wants to secretly take photographs inside the subway system may do so with little risk of being detected. Would a police officer be able to distinguish between the casual use of a cell phone or someone pretending to use a cell phone so that they may take a surreptitious photograph? Consider a businessman pretending to review email while taking a snapshot of a signal operations facility? Will law enforcement personnel spot a terrorist who has hidden a cheap, palm-sized digital camera inside a food or beverage container or wrapped it inside his coat? Would this terrorist simply give up if the act of photography were illegal?

Consider also that thousands, if not tens of thousands, of subway photographs are already available on the Internet, in books and magazines and through the municipal archives.

Banning photography under the pretense of security requires that police officers enforce the new rule. The time spent performing this extra duty is better spent patrolling critical parts of the system—those parts that the proposed ban is designed to protect. Posted notices near such facilities indicating a localized ban on photography could be both more effective and more efficient than a system-wide ban, although I do not personally believe even localized bans would deter a real criminal.

The subways need to be protected, but banning photography is a lame attempt at securing them. Law enforcement personnel don’t need to be distracted from their difficult jobs by constantly reminding unaware tourists on crowded subway platforms to put away their cameras, leaving anyone with a concealed camera to photograph other areas of the subway unchecked. Law enforcement training and regular patrols of key facilities are the only way to make the system safer.

Derek Vadala

Brooklyn, NY

Thoughts on the proposed photography ban?