Bruce Schneier has a nice little piece which is saying similar things to what I’ve been saying over the last couple of years on the subject of ‘crowdsourcing’ or opening closed-circuits of surveillance. He critiques the Internet Eyes scheme and Texas Border Watch and others. This is also the subject of the paper, ‘Opening Surveillance?’ that Aaron Martin of LSE and I presented at the S&S conference in London in April, and which will hopefully be coming out in the journal’s conference special early next year…
The era of Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) surveillance may be coming to an end. Surprised? Unfortunately, this does not mean that we are likely to see less surveillance, and cameras being torn down any time soon – quite the contrary. Instead a number of developments are pointing the way to the emergence of more Open-Circuit Television (OCTV) surveillance. These developments include technological ones, like wireless networking, the move to store data via ‘cloud’ computing, participatory locative computing technologies like CityWare, and the increasing affordability and availability of personal surveillance devices (for example, these plug and play mini-cameras unveiled at DemoFall 09). However they also include changes in the way that video surveillance is monitored and by whom.
Back in 2007, a pilot scheme in Shoreditch in London, which enabled residents to watch CCTV cameras on a special TV channel, was canned. However the project had proved to be incredibly popular amongst residents. Now The Daily Telegraph reports that an entrepreneur in Devon, Tony Morgan has set up a company, Internet Eyes, which is marketing what is calls an ‘event notification system’. They plan to broadcast surveillance footage from paying customers on the Internet, with the idea that the public will work as monitors. They won’t just be doing this for nothing however: the whole thing is set up like a game, where ‘players’ gain points for spotting suspected crimes (three if it is an actual crime) and lost points for false alarms. To back this up, there are monthly prizes (paid for out of the subscriptions of the organisations whose cameras are being monitored) of up to 1000 GBP (about $1600 US). Their website claims that a provisional launch is scheduled for November.
Mark Andrejevic has been arguing, most recently in iSpy, that those who watch Reality TV are engaging in a form of labour, now we see the idea transferred directly to video surveillance in ‘real reality’ (a phrase which will make Bill Bogard laugh, at least – he’s been arguing that simulation and surveillance are increasingly interconnected, for years). This idea might seem absurd, indeed ‘unreal’ but it is an unsurprising outcome of the culture of voyeurism that has been engendered by that combination of ever-present CCTV on the streets and Reality TV shows that came together so neatly in Britain from the early 1990s. It certainly raises a shudder too, at the thought of idiots and racists with time on their hands using this kind of things to reinforce prejudices and create trouble.
But is it really so bad? At the moment, UK residents are asked to trust in the ‘professionalism’ of an almost entirely self-regulating private security industry or the police. Neither have a particularly good record on race-relations for a start. Why is it intrinsically worse, if there are to be cameras at all (which I am certainly not arguing that there should be) to have cameras that are entirely open to public scrutiny? Is this any different from watching public webcams? Wouldn’t it actually be an improvement if this went further? If say, the CCTV cameras in police stations were open to public view? Would it make others, including the powerful, more accountable like a kind of institutionalised sousveillance?
In Ken Macleod‘s recent novel, The Execution Channel, the title refers to an anonymous but pervasive broadcast that shows the insides of torture chambers and prison cells, which functions as a device of moral conscience (at least for literary purposes) but also a Ballardian commentary on the pervasive blandness of what used to be the most outrageous atrocity. Accountability is in the end as far from this project as it is from Internet Eyes. Set up like a game, it will be treated like a game. It strips out any consequence or content from reality and leaves just the surfaces. What is ‘seen’ is simply the most superficial – and seen by the most suspicious. Participatory internet surveillance is Unreality TV. In any case, I don’t think it will either be successful in terms of crime-control (other such participatory surveillance schemes, like that on the Texas-Mexico border, have so-far proved to be failures) or useful in social terms, and may also be illegal without significant safeguards and controls anyway.
And there is nothing to stop multiple people signing up with multiple aliases and just messing the system up… not that I’d suggest anything like that, of course.
(Thank-you to Aaron Martin for badgering me with multiple posts pointing in this direction! Sometimes it just takes a little time to think about what is going on here…)