Helmet cams – self-protection or surveillance?

I am a cyclist, and for a while now I have been thinking about the increasing numbers of my fellow cyclists in the UK who are filming their everyday rides to work, and often posting the results online on sites like youtube. This has become more obvious as something particular since i have moved to Canada where very few cyclists seem to do this. There are more and more discussions on online cycling forums and even dedicated areas for swapping videos, tips and camera stories. This practice seems to have started amongst mountain-bikers and other extreme sports enthusiasts, but the use of handlebar or helmet-mounted cameras on ordinary commuting rides has a very different purpose. For most it appears to originate in a desire for self-protection. Cyclists are more aware than most of bad driving and how vulnerable you can feel when people cocooned in large mobile chunks of metal and glass are doing stupid things around you at high speed.

But as a surveillance studies specialist as well as a cyclist, I have more mixed feelings. We’ve been studying the way in which surveillance has come to be perhaps the primary way in which the state organises itself, and how crucial it as become to capital, to the organisation of labour and materials. We have also identified the way in which increasingly ubiquitous surveillance affects social relations, how it is implicated both as a reaction to, and as a driver of, the decline of social assurance, of trust. We’ve talked about the dehumanising effects of surveillance: the loss of dignity, privacy, of how memory and the mollifying effects of forgetting are replaced by constant recording. We have predicted the decreasing size and cost of surveillance devices, of their growing mobility, independence and even ‘democratization’ (or at least wider spread), and seen those predictions happen at even greater speed than most had anticipated.

The surveillance society has spawned reactions: there has been anti-surveillance (smashing of cameras, protests, mapping of paths of least surveillance etc.), situationalism and play, there has been ‘sousveillance’ with activists turning the gaze back on the watchers, and there has been guerilla and vigilante surveillance, with groups citizens using the increasingly cheap surveillance equipment for their own personal and political ends from the Texas Minutemen watching the US border for illegal immigrants to my cyclist friends.

My real concern, I suppose, is whether the use of surveillance by ordinary people is some kind of empowering self-protection, or whether it is simply another step further into a surveillance society. The answer, I think, is that it is both. Certainly the cyclists don’t see it as the latter, but people, even the most intelligent, rarely see themselves as part of a trend that many would regard as negative. Some do recognise the connection but have no problem with it. The same ‘nothing to hide. nothing to fear’ rhetoric is trotted out, but usually by people who are too naive to understand the implications of what they are saying, too self-centered to realise that it isn’t just about them, or too boring to be able to even imagine what they might ever do anything interesting enough to come to the attention of anyone watching. The use of helmet cams does however, have an in inherent and implied politics: it does make it very difficult to construct any coherent politics of state CCTV if you are yourself involved in surveillance on an everyday basis. How can you complain about the number of cameras in your high street, when you make videos of drivers who have annoyed you and put them online?

I’ll be posting more about this as I think of it.

Big Brother isn’t listening (at least in Maryland)…

Hot on the heals of my earlier post on the subject, I have just received the news that following the publication of the report in The Baltimore Sun, the Maryland Transit Authority have pulled the proposal to use audio surveillance on their buses.

However, an interesting thing to note in this supplementary report by transport correspondent, Michael Dresser, on the paper’s blog, is that the proposal apparently came about because CCTV cameras these days come with sound-recording built in, and that other transit authorities in Cleveland, Denver and Chicago use it. The MTA administrator responsible for seeking the legal opinion on audio surveillance is quoted as saying “It’s something that’s becoming the standard of the industry.”

So, if I am reading this right here, important policy decisions that have major implications for privacy are being treated simply as technical issues because the technologies that are being purchased have the capabilities. It’s only in this case because the MTA sought a legal opinion that we know at all, let alone that anyone objected. So how many other transit, police or urban authorities or commercial venues in how many places are now regularly using the audio capabilities of cameras without ever having considered that this might be a problem? And what other built-in technical capabilities will simply be used in future simply because they are available? What about the Terahertz Wave scanning that I covered earlier on?

Travel cards: Tokyo vs. London

NB: this post is largely incorrect… at least in the fact that actually the systems are much more similar and becoming even more so. I am not going to change the post (because being wrong is part of research and learning), but will direct you to a more recent post here.

Tokyo and London both have pre-paid smart card systems for travel on public transport. They look superficially similar but also have crucial differences.

JR East's Suica card
JR East's Suica card

In fact, first of all, there are several smart cards from different railway companies in Japan. Each of main privatised regional railway companies has one: the most common in Tokyo are the Suica card operated by JR Higashi (East Japan Railways) and the Pasmo card issued by a collection of smaller private railway companies as well as the TOEI subway, bus and Tokyo Metro systems. JR NIshi (JR West) and JR Toukai (JR Central) also have their own cards, ICOCA and TOICA respectively. They are all now pretty much interchangeable and Suica, which is the oldest system in operation since 2001, in particular can now be used for other kinds of payments in station shops and the ubiquitous Lawson chain of konbini (convenience stores) elsewhere in the city. It also now has a keitai denwa (mobile phone) enabled version in which the card is virtually present as a piece of phone software.

Great! It’s convenient, costs no more than buying tickets separately and if you forgot to bring any cash for your morning paper, you can use Suica for that too.

So, just like London’s Oyster card then?

Well, no.

TfL's Oyster card
TfL's Oyster card

The Oyster card, issued by Transport for London, looks pretty much the same and operates along similar technological lines, but because it also requires the user to register using a verifiable name, address and telephone number, with which the card is then associated, it is effectively also a tracking system, which is gradually producing an enormous database of movement surveillance. And of course this has not gone unnoticed to the UK’s police and security services who have reserved the right to mine this database for reasons of ‘national security’ and detection of crime. If you lose your card or have it stolen, then not only do you lose your £3 deposit, you’d better tell the authorities too or you might end up having some criminal activity associated with your name on the database.

Suica cards, on the other hand, can be bought from any ticket machine, require no deposit and no registration, and it doesn’t matter if you lose them, or leave the country, even for several years.

Tokyo and London’s transport systems have both experienced terrorist attacks so there’s no particular reason why Japan’s authorities shouldn’t have demanded a similar database (if you accept the UK’s reasoning). Tokyo also has a far more extensive, complex and multiply-owned transport infrastructure. Surely this must inevitably lead to an insecure and out-of-control system where disaster is inevitable.

So in which of the two cities does the transport system work far more efficiently? And where is that you are actually less likely to be a victim of crime, and feel safer?

I’ll give you a clue – it isn’t London.

The downside of Brasilia

on foot, you are immediately confronted by the unpleasant reality of what is to the pedestrian effectively a huge expanse of carpark and highway separating the areas you might want to be. The functional split between the ‘zones’ only makes this worse.

Again, this is urbanism rather than surveillance, but here are some more musings and pictures on the urban form of Brasilia. Yesterday, I posted a lot of conventionally attractive shots of the buildings around the monumental axis of Brasilia. However, leaving aside the wider question of whether Brasilia outside of the planned centre functions as a city, there is a rather less beautiful side to the core.

This mainly has to do with the practical consequences of the philosophy behind the plan and particularly with functional separation and transport. As I noted when I first arrived, the city is dominated by roads. 5-lane highways run down either side of the monumental axis, and it is crossed by two major motorways in deep cuttings, with all the attendant slipways. These probably look very attractive as bold curving lines on a plan. They may even function if you are traveling by car (or bus). But on foot, you are immediately confronted by the unpleasant reality of what is to the pedestrian effectively a huge expanse of carpark and highway separating the areas you might want to be. The functional split between the ‘zones’ only makes this worse. Say you are in the hotel zone that I was staying in and you want to go out for a meal and a drink. Well, that’s 30-minutes walk to the nearest residential centre (where most of the evening options are located). Sure, you can take a taxi, but why should you have to? All the sports clubs are in separate ‘club zones’ even further away from either hotel, commercial or residential districts.

Now, okay, so the residential districts have most of their facilities (not including clubs) within walking distance – I said in my first impressions blog entry that I could actually imagine living here with a young family. And I still could. Natives of Brasilia are fanatical about the place. The residential districts work. You don’t really have to go anywhere near the soulless and secured shopping centres or take your chances running across massive motorways with uncaring drivers trying their best to ignore you. There is a simple metro system which runs between the districts and the centre (though it was largely closed for the building of new stations when I was there). You can walk around, between and under the blocks. They don’t appear to be totally obsessed with security in the manner of Sao Paulo or indeed most other large Brazilian cities. The blocks have concierges but not fences, walls and gates. Most of the windows do not even have bars.

But there is a reason and a price for this too. The residential zones are simply not socially mixed. Just about everyone who lives in the big blocks is a government or big corporate office employee. The ordinary workers and the poor live elsewhere entirely, in one of the satellite cities of Brasilia, and are bussed in and out via the busy central bus station every day. At the bus station, you find glimpses of the ‘ordinary Brazil’ – the cheap lanchonetes and pastelerias (in fact probably the best pasteleria I have found in Brazil so far)!, sidewalk vendors of DVDs and knock-off jewelry, the beggars, the hungry and the desperate. In many ways I felt more comfortable there than in the dry Le Corbusian dreamspaces of the government buildings.

Anyway, here’s some pictures of the ‘real Brasilia’ – or what it looks like if you stop focusing on the architecture and take a wider view!