Scary pictures

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 September, 2004, 12:00am

Taking snapshots of New York's major buildings and bridges used to be routine for the many millions of tourists who visit every year. Boring to some, perhaps, but just about as harmless as it gets. But this is not so anymore.

In these paranoid days of terrorist alerts, and warnings that financial buildings have been targeted for truck-bomb attacks, getting pictures for the family album has become a risky business, especially if you are of Middle Eastern or south Asian appearance, when it could land you in jail.

It is one of those modern ironies that at a time when digital cameras are becoming ubiquitous, when every new phone seems to come with a camera, and when video cameras are smaller and cheaper than ever, they are becoming a liability.

This is especially the case after the recent recovery of photographs, floor plans and notes about the comings and goings of financial targets in New York and Washington from an al-Qaeda operative in Pakistan.

In July, a New York man of Pakistani origin was arrested in Charlotte, North Carolina, after being seen videoing major buildings. Confiscated tape included footage of government buildings and public transit systems in five US cities, according to the authorities. Last month, a man described as a Hamas operative was arrested as he drove across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Baltimore while his wife videoed it.

Cases like these are sending shivers through many immigrant communities. 'Everybody in the community read the stories - now they are scared to make videos or to take still pictures,' said Mohsin Zaheer, editor of Sada-e-Pakistan, a weekly Urdu language newspaper in New York.

Mr Zaheer said he advised a friend visiting recently not to take any pictures of bridges or big buildings. For last week's Republican National Convention, his newspaper had to rely on agency pictures. The photographer he uses was too scared to take pictures without proper credentials.

The only consolation for people like Mr Zaheer is that in other parts of the US, anyone taking pictures in a small town risks being detained on suspicion of terrorism. Trainspotters, for example, have been arrested in several places. Even a wedding photographer was held for idly playing with his camera in a parking lot near an armed forces recruitment centre.

Of course, these scare stories do not apply to those people who operate the thousands of cameras that have been put in shopping centres, office buildings, on major streets, and even in police helmets, since the September 11 attacks. We may not be able to do much snapping through camera lenses anymore but, rest assured, we are being watched through them.