Why video surveillance has little to do with security and everything to do with our obsession with voyeurism.

by David Spark on September 24, 2007

Almost two years ago I wrote a story for eWEEK about how the LAPD is using video surveillance and image recognition to empower police officers. They have video cameras in parks, PDA-based mugshot books with facial recognition software, and license plate recognition cameras mounted on top of patrol cars. LA’s police force is extremely aggressive about testing and deploying technology to distribute knowledge and wisdom to all officers, especially when they’re in the field. They’re also extremely friendly to the media and are more than happy to help out with stories.

Listen to the Spark Minute (John Scott and David Spark from Green 960 in San Francisco, CA) talk about video surveillance in your city and in your home (Run time: 7:38).

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When I was writing this story, of which a significant portion was about video surveillance, everyone’s first reaction was, “Well, are you going to write about how it’s an invasion of our privacy?” Before I told them anything specific about the story or that it was being written for eWEEK magazine and not Mother Jones, they would always head down the “invasion of our privacy” route. Since my days at ZDTV/TechTV and whenever I’ve been called to speak on a radio show about an issue that could be deemed as an invasion of our privacy, that becomes the immediate and only discussion. It actually becomes very difficult to get the discussion on the topic of the technology in question. While security is a top concern, and lack of it can scare us, it doesn’t affect each of us personally like privacy issues do.

I wanted to take a look back at the video surveillance industry, and see what’s happening in terms of why it’s taking off and what are the issues with privacy, why do these issues still exist, and why they’ll never ever go away.

It’s so cheap even you can do it – The cost of video surveillance is amazingly cheap. Anyone with a notebook computer and a cheap webcam with motion detect can install surveillance in their own home. This is all possible due to cheap and easy home Wi-Fi, wireless webcams, and cheap hard drives to store video.

Security might be the ninth reason for video surveillance – What are the neighbors doing? Who is taking my newspaper? Does the woman across the courtyard undress by the window? Absolutely anything on the Web that has a voyeuristic twist becomes extremely popular: user-generated real-life videos, search voyeur tools (what are people searching now), celebrity stalking via Gawker, are all based on letting the communal world of eyes looking out for us and catching unusual acts, recording them, and letting people see them at their leisure. For example, the movie The Bridge is about people jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. The filmmaker hired a bunch of camera people to point cameras at the bridge and record all day long in the hopes of catching a jumper. In the past, if you happen to see a jumper, it would have been a fleeting moment and the only record of it you’d have would be your memory of seeing that person jump. With bridge video surveillance, we now have a video record of a moment that many of us never thought we’d ever see. What we’ve learned with surveillance video is that there’s far more interesting stuff happening on these cameras then just crime.

Cameras are getting networked to central hubs – Los Angeles and many other cities are connecting traffic cams and cameras all over the city into a central hub. From one central location officials have eyes and ears all over the city. The policing efficiency of such a model is enormous. It reverses the need for street level bottom-up communications to the central office. Now “the eye in the sky” can direct officers to locations where crime is being spotted.

Recording video 24/7 versus recording video when there’s a crime – Different cities have different policies regarding recording video. London has cameras around the city recording 24/7. That’s how they nail people for not paying parking tickets, and it’s how they were able to posthumously catch the London Tube subway bombers. When I spoke to the LAPD close to two years ago, they didn’t have any plans to do 24/7 recordings. Their policy was to only hit the record button when a police officer monitoring the cameras saw something suspicious. This is what I believe is keeping them temporarily out of the “invasion of our privacy” bucket. I believe they’re still using that as their defense. The LAPD claims they don’t have a backlog of video that they can peruse and bring up embarrassing video of you picking your nose in MacArthur Park.

We have enough disk space to record all this video – Believe it or not, the cost of disk space is dropping so dramatically (holographic disks are on the market that can store terabytes of data) and compression algorithms are improving that it’s not completely inconceivable to actually record everything everywhere.

Faster indexing and searching of surveillance video – Video search and intelligent video technologies like 3VR can ID and index when objects from a scene disappear or appear. This allows for quick random searching through hours of surveillance video which is traditionally a linearly watched medium.

Technology isn’t protecting our privacy, laws are – A few years ago I spoke to a representative at the ACLU regarding biometric technologies. While I was working at ZDTV/TechTV I used to think of the ACLU as that organization we always called when we wanted “the other side” of the story. Since we were a technology network, we always leaned towards showing off cool new technology. But if a new piece of technology had the potential to broach on our privacy we felt we needed to create a balanced story, and that’s why we always called the ACLU or the EFF. I actually thought it was lazy reporting on our part. Just quoting either of these organizations doesn’t make for a balanced report. And for that reason I never thought much of these organizations because I only thought of them as always “the other side” of the story. That’s until this one interview I had with an ACLU lawyer who pointed out that he was all for biometric security, but he realized that the only thing that prevented people from using security technologies inappropriately were laws. And their purpose was to always make sure those laws are top of mind and constantly upheld. There’s unfortunately nothing inherent in surveillance technologies designed to protect our privacy. We have to trust the users of the technologies not to abuse them. Good luck to all of us.

It’s tough, because we’re all suckers for voyeurismTMZ.com is built on the public’s fascination with celebrity voyeurism. Yesterday I was watching a video of Britney Spears getting into a car and the people crowded around her with cameras flashing and video cameras. She and the car could barely move. If that happened to me once I’d be annoyed. Twice I’d be shouting obscenities. Three times I would have broken someone’s camera. But all of this happens because we’re obsessed with watching celebrities doing very average things, like going out to a restaurant or hitting a nightclub.

What’s to stop your neighbor? – The proliferation of video cameras means everyone has the possibility to record your life and publish it. If you’re outside the four walls of your home, there’s very little you can do if someone publishes a video of you online. Even if they record it through a window, once posted online, the damage is done. By the time your cease and desist order actually takes effect, an embarrassing video will have already taken effect and the financial damage is done. It will cause will take lawyers years to figure out, and it could cripple you, your family, and your business.

This will never change – Our innate voyeuristic tendencies have existed long before video surveillance. As much as we’d like to stop rubbernecking, it’s human nature. We need to find out. It’s like Lot’s wife who had to look back and watch Sodom and Gomorrah burning. We have to look. The more video that records events, may catch crime, but it’ll catch a lot more, and laws won’t be fast enough to stop people’s desire to post and watch.

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