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Mitt Romney's damning '47 Percent' video and the new politics of privacy

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Bartender Scott Prouty describes shooting and distributing the video that helped take down Romney's presidential campaign

Romney - 47 percent screencap
Romney - 47 percent screencap

On Wednesday night, the anonymous videographer behind the infamous "47 percent video" shot at a private Mitt Romney fundraiser in May 2012 revealed himself on MSNBC's The Ed Show. Scott Prouty was a bartender working high-end banquets in Boca Raton, Florida, including Romney's $50,000 per plate dinner. He is a registered independent who brought his Canon camera with him in case Mitt Romney wanted to meet and take photos with the staff, as Bill Clinton had after a similar event. No one had told the staff not to bring cameras or take photos. A Secret Service agent was some distance behind him. He set the camera down on the bar and pressed "record."

"You shouldn't have to be able to afford $50,000 to find out what the candidate actually thinks."

Prouty quickly realized what he had: an explosive document of Romney speaking candidly about his disdain for nearly half the country. One section in particular stuck with him: Romney excitedly describing touring an appliance manufacturing factory in China where girls in dormitories were "stacked three high." Romney's company paid these girls "a pittance," but barbed wire fences and guard towers were supposedly in place to keep outsiders from coming in to work.

Romney's lack of empathy, both for the Chinese workers and the Americans whose jobs he'd outsourced there, disgusted Prouty. Prouty had no health insurance; neither did most of the banquet staff. He knew the people Romney was describing as "victims" who refused to take personal responsibility for their lives.

The so-called "47 percent" was in the room. To Romney, they seemed completely invisible, except as a nuisance, for serving the food too slowly.

The "47 percent" was in the room

He found an article on Romney's investment in Global-Tech, the Chinese manufacturer he'd described at the fundraiser, by Mother Jones' David Corn. He wrestled for more than ten days with the legal, economic, and political implications for himself, his employer, and the country. In his interview, Prouty poignantly describes looking into the mirror and saying to himself, "you coward." He then decided to get the video to Corn, contacting the freelance researcher who'd worked on Corn's China story, James Carter IV, through YouTube and Twitter.

"I felt an obligation to release it," Prouty told Ed Schultz. "You shouldn't have to be able to afford $50,000 to find out what the candidate actually thinks."

Arguably, shooting the video of Romney was the least high-tech thing Prouty did. Once he decided to make the video public, he was extremely strategic. He degraded the video to try to obscure his position. Initially, he requested that everyone in the video be blurred out but Romney. "I only wanted his face to be seen, his voice to be heard," Prouty said.

Then, once the video of Romney was live, Prouty Google-bombed him.

Google-bombing Mitt Romney with his own words

"My goal was that if you put 'Mitt Romney' into Google, the video would be the first thing that came up," Prouty told Schultz. Prouty worked on his own to maximize the number of links to the video on both Mother Jones and YouTube, through Twitter and Facebook and other social media. It was a total, homespun, internet-first campaign to discredit a candidate with his own words.

David Corn describes what happened next:

It went hyper-viral. The 47 percent story quickly became bigger than Prouty and I had expected. Realizing he could not keep hidden the location and date of what was becoming the most notorious fundraiser in modern history, Prouty gave me permission to reveal those details, to remove the blurring from the videos we had posted, and to release the entire video he had sent me. This will make it easier for someone to track you down, I said. If they want to find me, he replied, they will.

You know the rest. The story generated a meme and changed the political landscape. For nearly two weeks, it dominated the presidential race. Romney offered conflicting responses and explanations. And Prouty watched from the sidelines as millions of people wondered who had shot this video.

Despite political operators and a ravenous news media trying to track him down, despite the host of the fundraiser threatening legal action, despite offers of huge sums of money if he would come forward to tell his story, Prouty was able to remain anonymous. And the video was everywhere. It couldn't be stopped.

"The files will get out."

Two years ago, after activists in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa were able to document their protests and the government's crackdown on those protests, The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal mused that "if there's one thing that we should have learned from the file-sharing wars, it's that the files will get out." Later, Tim Maly riffed on this idea with reference to Wikileaks:

The files will get out.
The files will get tagged.
The files will get linked, indexed, and submitted to a search engine.

The files will get shared.
They'll get liked and tweeted and posted on forums.
They'll be downloaded and printed off.
They'll be emailed around and Snopes'd.
They'll be cut up and mashed up and turned into charts.
There will be comments and complaints and brash opinions from people who didn't read them in full.

They'll be excerpted in books and quoted on TV.
They'll be used in a case study and remembered over a beer.
They'll become proof that
the files will get out.

In four years, a hot camera in plain sight will be unthinkable...

It's possible that we will never see another video like this again. Romney's remarks to a private audience brought disaster on his presidential campaign once they were made public. Political campaigns will always remember this. So will CEOs, lawyers, bankers, and anybody discussing anything that's potentially explosive. They will do everything they can to prevent anyone, whether guest, staff, donor, press, or employee from surreptitiously recording video or audio. A hot camera in plain sight (or hastily covered by a towel, as Prouty did once he realized Romney was veering far from his typical stump speech) will be as unthinkable as an intelligence officer sneaking out huge troves of classified material on CD-Rs marked "Lady Gaga."

But actually, it's more likely that we will see thousands upon thousands of videos like this. Cameras, microphones, sensors, and other recording equipment are only getting smaller and more ubiquitous. Google Glass is just the most ostentatious emblem of our DIY surveillance future. Cameras will fit on everything from pens to pins. I'd say it will be like James Bond, except there won't be anything flashy about it. It will simply be there. No matter how much or how little power you have, there will be nothing you can do to stop it.

… because in four years, cameras will never need to be in plain sight again

We are dealing with a different world now. Or rather, we are barely dealing with it. Privacy is on the move. The same technology that an activist can use to document oppression can be used by an employer to spy on his workers, a peeping tom to spy on his neighbor, or a bartender to record a foolish politician saying something extraordinarily stupid. The files will get out. They won't even need to be files first.

Make no mistake: there is no stopping it. And we will always be one step behind and one step ahead, awkwardly teetering over the now.