A sex worker in Oklahoma who was filmed using a quadcopter by a self-described "video vigilante" has pleaded guilty to a lewdness charge. According to a report from BBC News, the woman was sentenced to a year in state prison for the misdemeanor, although the case is still pending against her alleged client.
The encounter between the two was filmed by drone pilot Brian Bates, a known figure in Oklahoma City who describes himself as a "video vigilante." Bates has long used video cameras to capture footage of alleged sex workers, which he uploads to his YouTube channel and his website, JohnTV.com, earning money through ad revenue in the process.
"one of the safest ways to go about my activism"
Speaking to NewsOK after he captured the footage last August, Bates said that using a drone was the "one of the safest ways to go about my activism." In the video, he suggests that a green pickup truck following the sex worker and her client is being driven by her pimp, and for that reason he deploys his drone. The video shows the pair apparently engaging in a sex act in the front seat of a truck, before they notice the drone and drive away. Bates told BBC News that this was the only time he'd used a drone in this way, and that it was "very good footage."
In an FAQ on his website, Bates says that he started filming because he believes it can protect women who have been victimized and forced into sex work, and shame those who exploit them. He says that he focuses only on sex work that takes place in public. "JohnTV doesn’t concern itself with prostitution that is 100 percent consensual, conducted completely behind closed doors and/or is not part of an organized criminal effort," says the FAQ.
Advocacy groups for sex workers, though, disagree. "[He] filmed people he assumed to be vulnerable without their knowledge or consent and as a result, individuals are facing the violence of arrest and incarceration, not to mention the stigma and collateral consequences of public shaming," Kate D'Adamo of the Sex Workers Project told The Verge. Katherine Koster of the Sex Workers Outreach Project added: "Such tactics are a needlessly harmful and wholly ineffective."
Bates' activity also raised wider questions about the use of drones for such "vigilante" work, specifically their ability to film in more spaces. "People operating drones have to think about whether there is a reasonable expectation of privacy when they are filming," Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group told BBC. "Filming in public spaces [for example] is very different from filming someone's private property."