Using Your Phone As A Spy Camera - Is It Legal To Take And Share A Photo Of A Stranger?

Have you ever secretly taken a stranger's photo? Here's where you stand legally

We've probably all been in this position; you're on the train, you spot someone out of the corner of your eye and you instinctively reach for your mobile phone to use it as a spy camera. Maybe they look EXACTLY like your mate and you need to show him his doppelgänger. Or maybe they haven't realised it, but they've got odd shoes on and you need to let your Facebook pals in on the lols. But have you ever considered the ethical and legal implications of taking a person's photograph without their consent? In our guide to UK surveillance law we explain how to stay the right side of the thin blue line when using spy cameras and outdoor security cameras. A lot of the same laws apply to taking a photo with your mobile. If someone has a reasonable expectation of privacy for example, it could actually be illegal to snap them, no matter what they're doing. However, if what they're doing extends to criminality, the law changes. And a lot of candid mobile phone snaps that go viral are of exactly that.   1 in 4

Britons have secretly taken a stranger’s photo and shared it online

According to research conducted by Online Spy Shop earlier this month. 25% of Britons say they’ve taken a stranger’s photo without consent and later shared it online. Our research suggests that while secret snappers may think their actions are going unnoticed, 30% of us have either spotted someone taking our picture, or have suspected someone of doing so.   Our study also found:

  • You’re most likely to be secretly snapped while on public transport.
  • Young people are most likely to take a photograph of a stranger and share it, 39% of 18-24 year-olds admitted doing so.
  • Most people share photos via social media, with Twitter among the most popular platforms.
  • 90% of Britons think it’s OK to take a secret photo if it’s to record criminal or antisocial behaviour.
  • 9% say it’s always OK to share images of strangers.

Ever thought of snapping a stranger using your phone as a spy camera?

Follow our handy guide to see where you stand legally...

A guide to using your phone as a spy camera

Where are you most likely to be snapped by someone using their phone as a spy camera?

39% of those who admitted sharing their photos of strangers said they captured the images on public transport. While public transport may be the most tempting place to take a stranger’s photo, it’s also the place you’re most likely to get caught. 58% of those who believe they’ve been snapped say it happened on public transport. 26% say they’ve snapped a stranger in the street and 20% say they’ve done it in a restaurant or bar. Other places people admit taking a photo of a stranger before sharing include hairdressers, gyms and university campuses.

How is your picture most likely to be shared?

The majority (75%) of sharing was done via social media, with an almost even split between private social media platforms like WhatsApp and Snapchat (48%) and public social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter (52%). 10% of those who shared images online say they posted them to blog platforms such as Tumblr and 15% shared them by email.


Feelings around being snapped

On average, 22% of Britons said they had some sort of anxiety around being snapped without their permission. However, this figure was significantly higher among younger adults. 41% of those aged 18-34, typically referred to as Millennials, say they're fearful that a stranger will take their picture. That's almost double the national average. 

Attitudes to sharing pictures of strangers

90% of Britons think it’s OK to take a secret photo to record criminal or antisocial behaviour. But just 9% say it’s always OK to share images of strangers. Of the 30% who saw or suspected someone of taking their picture, only 20% say they confronted the person.  

Steve Roberts of Online Spy Shop recommends caution when it comes to covert snaps of strangers. “There are lots of ways to protect your cyber privacy, but unfortunately there’s not much you can do to prevent someone snapping your pic. And in most cases, it’s actually not against the law to take a photograph of a person in public, assuming they don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy and your actions don’t harass, alarm or distress them. “However, it’s what happens to the photo after it’s taken that could have wider implications. Scammers use images of strangers to set up fake dating and social media profiles, often to dupe people into thinking they’re interacting with someone else. Then there’s the issue of online harassment, which can happen if a picture goes viral and the subject is identified. “My advice to anyone who is concerned about their picture being taken in public is to calmly explain to the person doing that they don’t want their photograph taken and to ask that it’s deleted, provided it’s safe to confront the person.”

"It happened to me!"

Stewart Mathers, an actor and model from Manchester, has experienced secret snappers more than once. stewart_mathers "I think this has happened to me twice. The first time I thought I was being paranoid so I ignored it. "Then last summer, a woman very indiscreetly took a photograph of me on her phone while I was on the tram. I was pondering whether I should say something but she beat me to it and apologised. “She said I really looked like someone she'd seen in a film, but she couldn't remember his name. She was more embarrassed than me. I can imagine it would be upsetting for people to have their picture taken without consent. I certainly wouldn't do it to someone, you never know what kind of day they're having or how it will make them feel if they spot you." "Having my picture taken didn't upset me at the time but since it happened I've had my Facebook pictures used to create a fake profile, so now I'm a bit more edgy when it comes to pictures of me and strangers.”