Recently, in Slidell, in my very own neighborhood, a naked burglar was caught on tape by a home surveillance system. At which point, I began to think maybe I should have a home surveillance system too.
Most governments, it seems, think like me.
London has its “Ring of Steel” surrounding its central business district. And New York City is steadily increasing the number of surveillance cameras within the Big Apple. Very soon, if not already, you will be unlikely to walk in any public area of New York City — or any other large metropolitan area — without being recorded.
Privacy proponents are concerned about this, of course, but it really does seem inevitable given current trends. And, once you begin to add the number of people in those same large metropolitan areas who are snapping away with their digital cameras and cellphones, it becomes almost certain that somewhere out there right now, on someone’s disk or hard drive, there is you.
At the moment — fortunately — these large-scale surveillance systems are fairly ineffective in observing individual behavior because of the many practical problems associated with trying to manipulate and filter huge amounts of images. As long as we remain tiny needles in these giant digital haystacks, this is likely to remain the case. However, once automated filters are perfected — face detection software among them — things may change. Already, these systems are proving valuable in what legal types call forensic investigations: tapping the growing archive of pictures and videos already on file.
But, here, for the moment, let’s imagine another use of omnipresent cameras, a more public use. Could these cameras become the “news”?
Everyday, prior to driving to and from Loyola, I would like to learn what the traffic is like along my route. The every-twenty-minutes-or-so of radio updates I (sometimes) get are too far apart. Current web-based traffic services too often rely, to their detriment, on the diligence and accuracy of the public. What I would really like is a series of webcams along my route. Don’t tell me the news: show me the videos. I can do the rest myself.
Likewise, if there is a high-speed car chase, why can’t I see it, rather than listen to a belated sound bite? If there is a pothole that needs to be fixed, why can’t I pinpoint that pothole on my laptop screen — and check back to see how soon (or not) it gets fixed? If there is a political speech I want to hear, why can’t I listen to that speech live, as it happens?
Conventional broadcast news channels have allowed me to do some of these things — but never on my own terms. When I listen to that political speech on conventional broadcast channels, for instance, I am also forced to endure the commentary and the advertisements attached.
What happens, I wonder, when I am able to access the “news” on my own terms? What happens when I become an eyewitness to the world?
There are important privacy issues to consider in the promulgation of surveillance cameras in London, New York, and elsewhere. But these are problems of ownership and control, not problems of information. One of the great potentials of cheap and ubiquitous new media technology — omnipresent webcams, for instance — is to provide the public with the opportunity to actually use that technology, not merely be “protected” by it.