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 read this morning that the Israel Police want to hook up existing CCTV cameras in businesses in Tel Aviv to a central police observation station. Let’s admit it – this is a very clever idea. Instead of buying all the equipment yourself, just use someone else’s. On second thought, though, aren’t most businesses CCTV cameras pointed at their shelves of goods to prevent people stealing? Are many of them pointed at the street at all? Either way, that’s not really the point (also because the plan includes CCTV cameras owned by the municipality and public buildings).
The point is that Tel Aviv is joining that growing list of cities with extensive CCTV camera coverage. The police say that it will give them another set of eyes wherever there is an event going on. A consequence of this is not that we (people like me who live in and around Tel Aviv) will be filmed in more places, but rather that the police will be able to access these images in real time across the city. Also, the police will be able to store these images indefinitely, which businesses may not do for more than a day or two. There’s no word in that article as to whether they intend to do that or not.
But the part of the police’s plan that is most worrying for anyone concerned about privacy is their stated wish that anyone wishing to install a camera in his or her business will be legally required to put it online and make it accessible by the police. I have no idea whether this will become law, but it’s a pretty radical idea.
In an article in the New York Times – In Bid to Sway Sales, Cameras Track Shoppers – we learn that shops are filming us while we shop and then analyzing the tape to learn about how shoppers behave. Which parts of the store are more popular? How long do people spend looking at stuff before they buy it? This is all stuff that shop owners think will help them sell more stuff. They’re probably not wrong.
Currently, this is being done to help businesses understand their clientèle better, but, reports the NYT, “privacy advocates” are worried that with facial recognition software added to the mix, this kind of technology will allow stores to gather information on individual consumers.
This is a great example of a future threat to privacy that might emerge through the combination of CCTV cameras and facial recognition technologies, which have not yet reached maturity.