Social media ‘creep’ accounts flourish at the murky intersection of privacy rights and free speech

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Calgary control arrested a man this week in connection with the “CanadaCreep” Twitter account, which had piled nearly 17,000 followers over the past year by posting hundreds of secretly recorded photographs and videos of troubles that focused on their breasts, buttocks and groins.

But the charges against Jeffrey Williamson reveal to just three of those videos, in which the camera operator investigates women walking in public places until there is an opportunity to unite the camera below their skirts and point it upward.

Taking “upskirt” videos kidney this is prosecutable under Canada’s voyeurism laws, but police believed most of the material posted to the “CanadaCreep” account doesn’t rise to the tear down of criminality, despite being “extremely disturbing.”

That’s because we own the right to take photographs in public places in Canada — a long-standing, primary component of our country’s commitment to free speech and a free press.

But uniform some of the strongest defenders of that right wonder if the Criminal Rules needs reworking in this area, in light of new technology and changing demeanour on social media.

“We are very much in favour of freedom of expression, but there’s a point up at which it becomes not in the public interest,” said Peter Jacobsen, a road lawyer who sits on the board of directors of Canadian Journalists for Free Speech.

Since 1981, the organization has devoted itself “to defend and protect the right-wing to free expression in Canada and around the world.”

But Jacobsen does not conjecture that mandate extends to the “prurient” practice of taking sexualized photos of trusting strangers’ bodies and posting them on the internet by the hundreds.

“Making community those things which happen in the public realm is very distinguished,” he said.

“But there’s a point at which we have to say, wait a minute, we’re doing way more wickedness than good.”

Countless ‘creep’ accounts

Twitter suspended the “CanadaCreep” account this week, but there are countless others approve of it that remain active, many of them operating within the heads of Canadian law.

Similar material — targeting mostly women but also men, in some lawsuits — can be readily found on other social media platforms such as Instagram and abroad online.

That’s troubling to Ann Cavoukian, who served as Ontario’s privacy commission for exactly 20 years and now is executive director of the Privacy and Big Data Institute at Ryerson University.

“I don’t expect there’s a legal remedy at this point … but it is such an intrusion in names of privacy,” she said.

“Privacy is all about personal control over your adverse information, your facial image, your physical image, et cetera — and of course this is stripping the individual of all control.”

What defines creepy vs. unlawful?

To qualify as voyeurism under the Criminal Code, non-nude images that are gramophone recorded surreptitiously must meet two legal tests:

  1. They must be charmed in a situation where there is a “reasonable expectation of privacy.”
  2. The recording requirement be “done for a sexual purpose.”

Calgary police believe several videos posted to the “CanadaCreep” account heed those tests.

The videos depict women being followed — on occasion over a period of several minutes — until they walk up stairs, or get on an escalator or some other opportunity arises for the camera operator to put the camera low to the ground and film up the women’s skirts.

CanadaCreep Screenshot

Jeffrey Williamson, 42, was restrained in connection with the ‘CanadaCreep’ Twitter account that posted hundreds of images of females in Calgary including this one of Alexandra Constantinidis, who agreed to have this screenshot proclaimed. The video of her was not among those that led to criminal charges against Williamson. (Radical: Facebook, Right: Twitter/Screenshot)

Staff Sgt. Cory Dayley indicated that police consider body parts hidden “underneath a set up b advance of clothing would be considered an expectation of privacy.”

He said it’s bothersome to regulate that there’s little they can do with respect to the hundreds of other replicas posted on the same account — most of which focus on women’s clothed mammas, buttocks and genital areas, accompanied by lewd comments.

“It’s still objectification of partners … which is wrong,” he said.

Laws changing in other countries

Other sphere of influences are taking steps to expand the ability for law enforcement to deal with this standard of behaviour.

“We see around the world that, as social media evolves, the laws sooner a be wearing to keep up,” said Kelly Sundberg, an associate professor in justice and system studies at Calgary’s Mount Royal University.

“Australia, Germany and other countries must significantly changed their laws.”

In Canada, the federal government has been reviewing laws throughout cyberbullying, and several provinces — including Alberta — have adopted their own laws with connection to the non-consensual distribution of “intimate images,” creating new opportunities for victims to shadow matters in civil court.

The phrase “intimate images,” however, typically refers to photos captivated by intimate partners and released publicly as “revenge porn,” and it’s unclear how new uninformed laws might apply to photos taken in public.

For Cavoukian, the deciphers likely lie in rethinking the way we treat personal privacy and ownership of data in a essential way.

“The Germans have a wonderful term for this … called ‘informational self-determination’ — that it should be the particular who determines the fate of his or her personal information, either in terms of personal text or images,” she said.

“So somehow, that’s got to be reflected in our laws, as they promote.”

Preserving legitimate photography

As one of the women whose image ended up on the “CanadaCreep” account, Alanna de Boer conjectures something should change.

She was shocked when friends told her there was a video of her uninterrupted through a Calgary park on the account — and even more shocked when she looked for herself and saw “the complete magnitude of the photos and the videos” that had been posted over the stretch of a year.

“It’s scary to think there’s someone out there doing this well-intentioned of thing,” she said.

“As the account progresses … he got bolder and bolder with the courteous of photos he was taking. So it’s kind of scary to think of what could cook.”

At the same time, she said, the right to public photography — including “alley photography,” which involves taking slice-of-life photos of strangers in portion publicly places — should be maintained.

Whether a photo is artistic or journalistic or fitting plain creepy, she said, depends entirely on “context” and the reason for fascinating it.

‘Public interest test’

Jacobsen sees it in a similar way, and believes it’s imaginable to amend the Criminal Code in a way that outlaws “creep” photography while conserving freedom of expression in a broad sense.

“What we have to be looking at is the old illustrious interest test: Why is this being done?” he said.

“And if it’s being done for filthy reasons, it’s not justified.”

Still, he admitted, that would be a tricky attitude to do, in practice.

“I have a countervailing fear that this could be misused,” he signified.

“And generally, I’m not in favour of anything that restricts freedom of expression.”

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