I came across an interesting article in the New York Times “Home and Garden” section the other day about the use of video surveillance by private individuals to identify neighbors who have been throwing bags of dog poo into their garden or scratching their car or otherwise behaving in a non-neighborly manner.
For me, this article was a timely reminder that data collection is not only being carried out by big fat corporations with an economic interest in our data, but also by normal people going about their normal lives. The article discusses the increased availability of small, affordable CCTV systems that can help people solve the small problems of everyday life – the dog that keeps pooping in the garden, the neighbor who leaves his rubbish by your house.
What is the meaning of all this? I think a few things are worth pointing out. First, practices that were originally initiated by the state and law enforcement authorities are being adopted by citizens: we can all be the policemen of our front garden and our driveway and confront our neighbors with video evidence of their misdemeanors. Or, of course, we can take it to the police (effectively doing their job for them).
Second, as the hardware costs come down, we are likely to see more of this: people want to stop their neighbor throwing his bags of dog poo into their garden more than they worry about the broader social implications of covering the streets with private CCTV cameras.
Third, unlike CCTV footage collected by the police, privately recorded images can be shared with the world, and YouTube would appear to be a popular destination for them. In other words, people are able to publicly shame their neighbors by posting their footage onto the internet. (This is an issue discussed at length by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger in his book Delete, which I mentioned in a previous post.)
I’m writing about this issue not because I want to start a campaign against private individuals’ CCTV networks, but because it looks like an interesting extension of debates over CCTV. More accurately, we might say that the same rationale given for the use of CCTV appears here, but writ small: there is a desire to prevent criminal or anti-social behavior; surveillance technologies are adopted that do not require physical presence (many of these systems enable you to access your cameras over your smartphone); and to the person who might be concerned that he is being filmed as he walks past someone’s house one might say, if you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to worry about – perhaps the most fallacious of arguments in favor of CCTV.
I was at the recent OECD Conference on the Evolving Role of Individual in Privacy Protection: 30 Years after the OECD Privacy Guidelines. One of the issues that was discussed was the right to be forgotten. This is analyzed in an extremely readable book, Delete, by Victor Mayer-Schonberger. The problem is simply that digital memory is eternal: stupid stuff that we say online, or pictures that perhaps we shouldn’t have uploaded, are there for ever. You might take down the picture, but if someone has already saved it and distributed it, it’s out of your control.
A solution that people are beginning to think about is the idea of an automatic self-destruct feature for stuff we put on Facebook and other social networks. In other words, unless you specifically request otherwise, any update or comment you write on Facebook, say, would disappear after a certain period of time. This would make it harder for future employees (or dates) to prejudge you on a youthful indiscretion, as the automatically deleted stuff would not appear when they Google you (and they will Google you).
There is, of course, no business case for doing this. The more data Facebook has about us, the more accurate profiles it can sell to advertisers. So there are two ways something like this could happen. The first would be through regulation, the second would be through consumer power. I wouldn’t count on either of them.