Towards Open-Circuit Television

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…)

Virtual surveillance fail

this Open-Circuit TV (OCTV) is also about ´responsibilizing´citizens, trying to turn ordinary people into civic spies. Luckily, whilst people love to watch, they generally refuse to behave as agents of surveillance

The US-Mexican border has been a pretty good barometer of the levels of paranoia, waste and stupidity around immigration and surveillance for quite some time now. Now the El Paso Times of Texas reports on the stupendous failure of one massive initiative that was supposed to spread the burden of watching the border by installing webcams (and associated infrastructure) for US citizens to watch online and report anything suspicious.

Around $2 Million US was sunk into the program, yet it had few tangible outcomes. The figures, released under the Texas Public Information Act show that despite 1,894,288 hits on the website, there have been just 3 arrests out of a projected 1200, and only 8 incidents reported in total out of a projected 50,000.

What made me laugh was the comment from the office of Governor Rick Perry, who initiated the scheme, that the only problem was the way in which the scheme´s success had been assessed – there is a quote from a spokesperson that is a classic of government evasion: apparently, ¨the progress reports need to be adjusted to come in line with the strategy¨!

The only sensible comment on the whole debacle comes from Scott Stewart, a surveillance and security expert from Stratfor, who notes as all surveillance experts already know, that cameras are not that effective at deterring or stopping crime, and blames our naive faith in technological solutions that ¨can provide us with a false sense of security¨.

This isn´t just about whether cameras work though.

Of course there are wider issues about the fairness of US relations with Mexico which, under NAFTA, effectively mean that the US uses Mexico as a source of cheap labour and land for manufacturing and the free flow of goods, but does not permit the free flow of people. However for studies of surveillance, it is also about whether encouraging virtual voyeurism is either socially desirable or effective in reducing crime. In terms of effectiveness, of course Bruce Schneier has been arguing for quite a while that most security schemes are inefficient and counterproductive and there was an excellent paper by John Mueller of Ohio State University exploding the statistical myths around security measures in the War on Terror.

But this Open-Circuit Television (OCTV) – not the the usual Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) we are used to in malls and big cities – is also about ´responsibilizing´citizens, trying to turn ordinary people into civic spies. Luckily, whilst people love to watch, they generally refuse to behave as states would want and do not willingly become agents of surveillance – as this scheme and the experiment in the London borough of Shoreditch with such participatory surveillance schemes, which was similarly successful amongst viewers but achieved no measurable result and was shelved, show.

Note: Hille Koskela of the University of Helsinki, who works mainly on webcams, has been following the Texas border watch scheme and will be presenting a paper on it at our Surveillance, Security and Social Control in Latin America sumposium here in Curitiba in March… I look forward to hearing her analysis.