Wide-open Web is double-edged sword

By Steve Chapman

The Internet is an amazing creation, but not an entirely benign one. The upside is that you can post and find material that is accessible to countless people around the world. The downside is that you can post and find material that is accessible to countless people around the world.

That drawback is no longer a secret to the Navy wife whose husband, a member of the elite Seals, brought back photos of Seals with Iraqi prisoners, some of which suggested that the inmates were being abused.

She posted the photos on a Web site that she thought was private. In fact, it was publicly accessible, and an Associated Press reporter discovered them. The AP then published the pictures as part of an investigation of alleged abuses by Seals.

It’s not at all unusual for people to inadvertently disclose interesting information that quickly finds its way into newspapers and TV newscasts. What is unusual about this case is that six of the Seals and two of their wives are suing the AP for invasion of privacy, demanding that it not publish any more photos and pay unspecified monetary damages.

Their lawyer, James Huston, says by using the pictures, with faces and names of Seals plainly visible, the news service harmed their careers and endangered their lives. “These guys are back in Iraq; their faces are all over Al Jazeera,” he told National Public Radio, referring to the Arabic-language TV network. “If you’re a covert operator and your face is all over the place, you kind of don’t have a covert career anymore.”

But it wasn’t the AP that put those faces on an Internet site where they could be seen by anyone curious enough to look. It was one of the wives. The AP reporter did nothing more than take snapshots that had been made available to Web users and use them to inform the public about what the American military has been doing in Iraq.

Having taken the pictures and put them up for public inspection — intentionally or not — the owners are in a poor position to complain about their mass dissemination. If I drop a $20 bill on the ground, I can’t blame someone else for finding and spending it.

This case offers yet another warning about pervasive new technologies. The police who subdued Rodney King were surprised to find they had been videotaped hitting him, and that the tape was soon featured on newscasts coast-to-coast. Paris Hilton probably didn’t plan for a videotape of her and a boyfriend engaged in, um, intimate acts to turn up for sale on the Internet.

It takes a while for the human mind to adjust to changes in its environment, and the combination of modern photography and the World Wide Web is so radical that people keep making mistakes whose effects can mushroom beyond anything they could have dreamed. In the old days, the pictures of the Seals might have been Polaroids that would never have been seen by anyone else. Today, such images can go from one person to a billion people in no time at all.

To expect the AP to cooperate in keeping these photos secret is absurd. In the first place, someone else would undoubtedly have publicized them sooner or later. In the second place, they were newsworthy: The American people have a right to know of evidence — inconclusive though it may be — that their armed forces are doing things they shouldn’t be doing.

Ten Navy Seals were already facing criminal charges over alleged abuse of prisoners. The Navy found the photos disturbing enough to launch an investigation of whether the detainees in these pictures were mistreated. Maybe the news value of the photos would have been virtually the same even if the AP had obscured the names and faces of the Seals. But journalists have no legal or moral duty to shield them from the consequences of their own carelessness.

It’s safe to assume that in the future, military personnel will be far more careful in the presence of cameras. In the modern age, we’ve all learned, anything captured in a photograph can be put to uses the subject never intended. The only sure way to prevent it is to prevent the photograph from being taken.

Once upon a time, people worried that their privacy would be ruthlessly invaded by intrusive governments armed with advanced surveillance gadgetry. As it turns out, the most immediate enemy of our privacy may be ourselves.

Steve Chapman writes for Creators Syndicate. Contact him at: schapman@tribune.com