LOWELL | Mark Schwartz said he was surprised when he was told by a friend of a neighbor that a view of his house was available on the Weather Underground Internet site 24 hours a day. The site also had stored images of his home for the past couple of years.
Schwartz expressed concern about other camera images that had captured swing sets in his yard and his and neighbors' children over time.
Schwartz's complaint is part of a larger issue playing out across the nation as new technology pits people's right to privacy against citizens' First Amendment rights.
From cellphone cameras to those capturing images from satellites, video surveillance increasingly has become part of the fabric of people's daily lives. Businesses use them to monitor workers, parents use them to observe their babies sleeping at home.
The complaint about weather cameras specifically, however, was not something heard before by Fred Cate, a professor at Indiana University School of Law and author of "Privacy in the Information Age."
Cate noted there have been some proposals to restrict drones used by people such as real estate agents to take images of properties.
In these cases, Cate said there are concerns with the drones flying over other people's properties as they angle in to take different images. He said concerns involve possible damage that could happen if the drones were to crash as much as what images cameras might be recording.
Schwartz, who noted he has to sign a waiver when school pictures are taken of his children, said local authorities, were unable to assist him. He also contacted some attorneys, including one who suggested he could take the neighbor to small claims court. But he dismissed that idea because he was seeking privacy, not monetary damages.
"I'm frustrated," he said. "I am not going to stop until I get some resolution to it."
Eventually, Schwartz decided to gather signatures from other neighbors for a letter he gave to the homeowner. In addition to asking that the cameras no longer take images of their properties, they wanted past images removed.
The owner of the camera, Mick Roberts, said he immediately shut the cameras down as soon as he heard about the complaints and started the process to take off past images. The cameras were originally put up for security, he said, and he decided since he had a weather station he would add the images to the Weather Underground site.
Roberts said he had not received any complaints earlier about the cameras and thinks some animosity with the neighbors might be playing a part in the recent complaint.
Surveillance part of daily life
Andria Stark, a spokeswoman for Weather Underground, said there are more than 10,000 weather cams in the U.S. accessible on the site and nearly 21,000 worldwide. She said the organization monitors the cameras to make sure there is no inappropriate content.
The group has been using weather cameras to display images from around the world for a number of years, Stark said, and "we really haven't had any complaints."
The cameras should be pointing at the sky and not at someone's house, she said. She said the organization would email Roberts about repositioning at least one of the cameras.
"We don't want anybody to feel uncomfortable," Stark said. Instead of repositioning the cameras, Roberts said Friday he just decided to shut them down.
Schwartz attended Monday's Lowell Town Council meeting and said he would like to get some ordinance approved to protect people's privacy in such cases. He noted that Roberts' wife, Jennifer, is running for a seat on the council.
Jennifer Roberts said Schwartz's complaint was an attempt to damage her reputation and ruin her credibility.
Without taking a position on whether such an ordinance would be good or bad, IU's Cate said it would "be almost impossible" to craft an ordinance that would pass First Amendment scrutiny. In addition, there is the issue of how you define the camera to distinguish it from other cameras, such as back-up cameras on vehicles.
"Because of the First Amendment, we have a long and proud tradition of whatever you can see from the public right of way, you can record," Cate said.
Lowell Town Council President Edgar Corns said the town currently has no restrictions against the use of such cameras as long as they aren't used for purposes such as trying to look into a window to see someone undressing.
Cate said he believes people are more concerned with the continual monitoring available in the digital age. In the past, where police or journalists might have been limited by the cost of having someone continually monitor an area, now a small camera can be positioned to provide 24-hour surveillance.
"I wouldn't want to have somebody record everybody who pulls into my driveway," Cate said.
Police in places like Chicago can continually track people moving down a street through a series of cameras, he said. Similarly, Google Earth allows people to see images from around the world, although the company regulates itself by blurring images of people in rural areas, Cate said.
Cate said self-regulation may be key in many of these cases, as people and businesses try to conform to society's expectations. Lowell's Corns said the new technology is fine as long as it is not misused. He was happy Roberts shut down his cameras. He said otherwise there might have been some repercussions, the nature of which he didn't want to discuss.