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The Surveillance Society Made Manifest

Posted on Jun 22, 2009 by billsimmon in privacy, The Surveillance Society | 5 Comments

Lancaster, Pennsylvania, population 55,000, is about to become the most surveilled city in the U.S.

According to the LATimes, Lancaster is about to embark on a project installing 165 closed-circuit TV cameras in all of the city’s public spaces. That’s probably the highest number of CCTV cameras per capita in the U.S. and according to the Times, it’s actually more cameras in terms of raw numbers than are present in big cities like San Francisco and Boston.

This news by itself is enough to engender all sorts of hand-wringing over privacy and security issues and living-in-fear-of-Big-Brother scenarios, but what’s really interesting about the Lancaster story is that the budget-strapped city is relying on an all-volunteer army of Big Brothers (and, one presumes, Big Sisters) — citizen vigilantes who will take turns monitoring all of the public cameras.

Knowing how tough it is to find volunteers to bag groceries at the local food co-op, I wonder about the practicality of finding enough volunteers to monitor 165 different video feeds 24/7 — video feeds that will certainly be astoundingly boring to look at the vast majority of the time — but assuming this crowd-sourcing plan works, it certainly raises some interesting questions…

  • Since there is no direct government oversight over the monitoring operation, does that mean that Constitutional privacy issues are rendered moot?
  • How will the town deal with the potential of abuse — nosy neighbors and stalker boyfriends using the video feeds as ammunition for their personal curiosity?
  • Isn’t this actually more egalitarian than having only government officials monitor the feeds? After all, if constant electronic surveillance is a given going forward (and I think it’s reasonable to argue that will eventually be the case), isn’t it better if everyone has access to the data rather than just an elite class of Watchers? If we can spy on Big Brother while he’s watching us, doesn’t that take some of the sting out of the surveillance society?

If privacy is really going away, I for one prefer an open source type of surveillance program to a police state. I’m not suggesting that Lancaster is onto something brilliant — I think the city is reacting out of fear and not thinking through all of the implications of their plan — but I also think the knee-jerk negative reactions to this story should be carefully reconsidered from an if-not-this-then-what perspective. If you think the answer is simply to protect the privacy of citizens from all electronic surveillance, then I say good luck with that plan, Sisyphus Q. Luddite! Let us know how that works out for you.

[This post ws crossposted at The Contrarian]



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  1. On June 22, 2009, G C said:

    I mentioned this in a linkdump just now. My take:

    Dystopia is now: Bill Simmon takes a good, hard look at reports that Lancaster, PA, will soon be putting in so many security cameras that it will take a volunteer Stasi comprised of local busybodies to watch them all and determines that this may be the least worst alternative for our privacy-robbed future. Frankly I think Bill’s got this one wrong: open-source surveillance is a police state, just one with slightly better branding. Call me Sisyphus Q. Luddite if you must but I don’t think panoptic surveillance is some historical inevitability; it can and should be resisted, not embraced.

    Friends don’t let friends be contrarian for contrarianism’s skae.

  2. On June 23, 2009, G C said:

    Skae is a new word I invented meaning “sake.” Everyone else is using the old sake, but I think you’ll find they’re all wrong and this one is better.

  3. On June 23, 2009, billsimmon said:

    Yeah, let me be clear: I agree that a total lack of privacy is scary to consider (particularly for those of us who are quite accustomed to some modicum of it) and I agree we ought not just happily accept the fact of our privacylesness (yes, I just invented that word — watch it spread like wildfireosity!) and sign up for a neighbor-watching shift as our civic duty.

    Still, like it or not, there are people walking the streets now recording every minute of their lives on video and posting it online. The technology and expense of that is going to be insignificant in a VERY short time. We willingly give up a tremendous amount of personal info about ourselves now on the internet (social media is all about sharing personal info and we eat it up) — info that would have seemed very scary to divulge so freely 20 years ago. How much will our attitudes change in another 20 years?

    I’m paraphrasing Charlie Stross here, but facial and voice recognition tech is getting better constantly and combined with a good search algorithm and ubiquitous audio/video, you have a complete redefinition of the word “history” with every moment of most people’s lives not only recorded, but googleable. Setting aside privacy concerns for a second, I want that! I want to be able to have Google for my life. That’s a valuable tool.

    I’m saying we ought to consider these crazy infringements on our privacy through a lens of responsible futurism rather than frightened ludditism. Yes, if I was on the Lancaster city council, I’d campaign strongly against this idea, but I don’t know that it’s a necessarily *worse* idea than only having police monitor the ubiquitous CCTV cameras.

  4. On June 23, 2009, Alex C said:

    “Worrying is a waste of time. Surveillance is here. It was inevitable. But the surveillance state is not.”

    - “The Surveillance Society” by Adam L. Penenberg
    Dec. 2001 – Wired Magazine

    A few more relevant quotes:

    “If all this raises the specter of Big Brother, well, that’s understandable. But it’s also wrong. Even as we trade privacy for security and convenience, we’re hardly headed toward totalitarianism. Orwell’s greatest error, says Peter Huber, author of Orwell’s Revenge, was his view that the government had a monopoly on surveillance technologies. Says Huber: “If the Thought Police use telescreens, so can others – that’s just the way telescreens work, if they work at all.”
    Indeed, citizens have already learned to use surveillance tools to keep government accountable. When motorist Rodney King was beaten by Los Angeles police officers in 1991, a bystander caught the incident on video…”

    it ends with a bit of naivite, though: “The Constitution itself, therefore, stands in the way of Big Brother. OK, privacy is eroding. But liberty, and the safeguards inherent in due process, remain strong. The government can collect megabytes of information about us, but where and when they do and how that information is used is still subject to the laws designed to keep the state from abusing its power.”

  5. On June 23, 2009, billsimmon said:

    Rodney King and “megabytes” of personal data… OMG how quaint was 2001?

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