On TikTok, people are fuelling surveillance culture

IN TikTok Viewed over 925,000 camera zooms in on a man in a restaurant. A remix of Tony Lanez’s “NAME” plays over the video with the lyrics: “I fell in love with someone who doesn’t even know my name“. This video is part of a trend on the app where strangers, sometimes positioned as love interests, are being filmed without their consent or knowledge.

Emily, 30, from Australia, is the author of this video. “If you are in a public place, you can get into social networks at any time,” she says. Huck, stating this fact in defense of his video. While the vast majority of comments seem to agree with Emily’s clip (“NO GIRL GO IT OR I GET IT” writes one user, “dude is fine” writes another), others less so. One comment reads: “The roles are reversed and they go to jail. Leave him alone lol” and “don’t say ‘this is a trend’ because you’re a scoundrel.”

TikTok shoots clips of strangers – be it on night, get on the trainV arcadeV home through the windowor At work – easy to find on FYP. While these shots seem mundane, they turn into viral fodder on the app. This is perhaps not surprising: these immediate glimpses can be seen as a refreshing alternative to a stream of carefully selected and choreographed content, and fueling our innate fascination with people-watching.

But are these videos simply a perpetuation of already widespread surveillance? When we think of surveillance, we may think of the prevalence of video surveillance or the strict Covid-19 protocols enforced by the police. We can also think about employers putting mouse trackers and cameras in workers’ homes to monitor their performance. However, surveillance is not just a top-down phenomenon. Whether it’s filming someone drunk, in a restaurant, or even sharing tips on how to covertly film peopleit is clear that we are not just passive victims of the culture of surveillance: we are active participants in it.

Of course, this is nothing new: for decades, people have been filmed without their knowledge or consent, and their images have been widely shared on the Internet. But TikTok’s powerful algorithm means the video is more likely to go viral and the person being filmed will see it when it appears on their FYP page. Indeed, the feeling of being watched has never been so inevitable.

Noora felt out of sorts after being unwittingly filmed at a concert and accidentally stumbled across TikTok. “I felt very vulnerable and overwhelmed [when] I appeared on my own FYP and the video had over 500k views,” she says, “the person zoomed in on me and added sound. It wasn’t with bad intentions, but I felt very uncomfortable.” Noora had to beg the user to remove her video.

People who film strangers often say right away that it’s legal and not harassment. But in reality the legal issues are more complicated. “Under UK law, there is currently no general ‘right of image’ or right to control one’s likeness,” says trainee lawyer Daniel Campbell. “However, there are various laws designed to protect people from misuse of their personal data that may apply to the use of an image of a person.” Misuse of a stranger’s clip—for example, using it to promote something without their consent—can thus enter risky legal territory. And even if filming strangers doesn’t break the law, that doesn’t make it ethical. Daniel points to the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998which states that everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life.

People, of course, interpret this differently. Emily believes that the ethics of filming strangers depends entirely on the situation. “If it’s done with admiration and someone is in a public place, that’s not bad,” she says. “If something is being filmed to humiliate or make fun of someone, I think it’s less acceptable and people shouldn’t be doing it.”

Sally Eden, an artist who runs a popular account filming strangers, offers another justification with her videos. “This is a small part of a much wider series that I am working on for my undergraduate exhibition at the Chelsea College of Art this July,” she says of her TikTok, explaining that her work is “designed with an observational aesthetic in mind.” In one of her most popular videos, viewed over a million times, she films an unsuspecting couple sitting on a trumpet to sentimental piano music, with the caption: “The two aren’t that in love?”

Explaining the meaning behind her videos, Sally says, “The series focuses on reflection and appreciation of the little moments so often overlooked in everyday life.” She compares her videos to street photography and painting. This protection has legal implications: Daniel describes a “journalistic exception” to privacy and data laws “which protects freedom of expression in journalism, the arts and literature.”

Although Sally says she tries to ask permission from her characters, there are times when she “can’t get in touch with the people who were filmed.” She adds that she will always remove videos if asked to do so, which depends on people finding videos of themselves to decide if they want them to be posted. But whether we want surveillance to become “aesthetic” or whether art can ever serve as a justification for capturing someone without their consent remains in question.

While the ethics may be unclear, what is clear is that current laws seem ill-equipped to combat the tendency to film strangers on social media. “Currently there are no strict rules in the UK regarding filming strangers and posting them online,” says Daniel, “but in an ever-changing world, we will probably start to see cases of this kind starting to emerge.”

Another troubling aspect of this trend is the live streams hosted by bar or nightclub owners and DJs, which are being used to increase followers and get free club publicity through TikTok. These live streams, in which people order drinks, dance or try them on each other, regularly draw thousands of viewers within the first few minutes (one of the biggest accounts is @DJmoyvegas, which has over 81,800 followers). The subjects of these live broadcasts may not be aware that their evening was watched by thousands of people. And, even if someone told them, they wouldn’t have had a chance to look back – raising their usual sense of tiredness to new, daunting heights.

From time to time, someone in the comments might ask if people know they’re being filmed, or if the bar got their consent to broadcast. In response to this, other TikTok users often say that “there are security cameras everywhere.” While it is true that the UK and the US have the most CCTV cameras after China, and that you are almost certain to be filmed once you enter the business, official surveillance comes with laws and strict policies regarding public access to footage. to GDPR.

The first rule of good practice in GDPR protocols is that data must be used “fairly, lawfully and transparently,” says Daniel, adding that “the easiest way to avoid a civil dispute is to get the express consent of anyone who appears on camera.” But even if the club gets permission, can drunk guests wandering into a club or bar really agree to have their whole night played online? And is it safe for strangers to share their location in this way?

The normalization of filming strangers serves no useful purpose other than providing mindless viral fodder for viewers. It is a form of entertainment that can make people feel insecure and insecure. And this is more than just harmless entertainment, it can become a slippery slope towards an even more rampant culture of surveillance.

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