What follows is the story of my brush with Homeland Security today while entering the United States a few hours ago. It was all my fault, but I get the feeling I was an early example of something that staff in airports around the world will have to deal with regularly as wearable data collection devices become more common…
My plan was simple: wear the Narrative Clip (a tiny camera that takes a photo of what’s in front of you every 30 seconds – read my review) as much as possible over the next few days to create a first-person perspective photo diary of my time at SXSW this year.
On the first of two flights en route to Austin, I decided to wear the Clip for a little while so I could capture a flavor of my journey (passable food and an okay movie – I opted for The Fifth Estate, the film about WikiLeaks). A few hours later, I was talking to a Homeland Security official at Atlanta airport as I made my flight connection, when the terrible realization dawned on me — I’d forgotten to take the Clip off.
“What’s that little device you’ve got clipped on?”
As he took the routine fingerprint scan that foreigners arriving in the country have to provide, he asked me “What’s that little device you’ve got clipped on?” My heart sank. As a regular traveler, I know full well that photography isn’t allowed as you go through security, but there I’d been, taking a photo every 30 seconds without even thinking about it, in clear breach of rules enforced by serious-looking people who have powers like ‘stopping you from entering the country’.
I explained to the official what the Clip was and he took it away to consult with colleagues about how to handle what was no doubt as much of a first-time situation for them as it was for me.
I was fully expecting the camera to be taken from me and destroyed. After all, this was an unusual new piece of kit and why should busy US officials waste their time understanding it when I’d blatantly broken a basic rule of airport conduct? As I waited, another security official told me he was a technology fan and knew all about the Clip and its origins in Sweden, although he admitted that I’d probably have it confiscated.
How it played out was actually quite different, to my relief. The staff questioned me very specifically about how the Clip worked, whether it was technically possible to livestream images from the camera (I assured them it wasn’t) and whether it was possible for others to hack into my account to see the images.
After about 30 minutes of waiting around and being questioned, they took me away to another area where a different man made me open up all my bags. He was particularly interested in checking out the photos stored on my iPad (perhaps to see whether I had a habit of taking photos in areas where it’s banned). It felt like a little bit of an invasion of my privacy but since I’d broken their rules I figured it wasn’t worth complaining about.
“Do you think it’s funny?”
“Do you think it’s funny to take pictures in an area where it’s banned?” he asked me. I assured him I did not — I’d made a stupid, absent-minded mistake (and there was no way I was getting on the wrong side of these guys). Finally, he asked me to transfer the images from my Clip to my computer and delete everything taken in the airport. I did so and was allowed on my way to my connecting flight, with the Clip safely tucked in my bag.
Before I left, I apologized for the hassle I’d caused and he assured me it was fine — he explained that they know technology is moving fast and they need to keep up with the new devices that may cross their paths again in the future.
I’d expected stern-faced, intolerant treatment from officials who wanted to get rid of an odd British geek’s weird little camera as soon as possible, and instead they took the time to understand what they were dealing with and responded in an appropriate manner.
Still, I’m not sure all airport staff around the world would be quite so understanding, and I definitely wouldn’t recommend wearing an automatic camera around an airport. I’ve certainly learned my lesson – you can’t use a wearable camera completely passively, and it should never totally fade into the background of your day; you’re still a photographer with a photographer’s responsibilities.
Image credit: Mike Theiler / Getty Images