Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The eyes have it

And (I always feel like)
(Somebody's watching me)
And I have no privacy

-Rockwell, "Somebody's Watching Me"

So I received the EFF newsletter in my email today, and it leads me to this video on the spread of CCTV cameras as part of the growing surveillance state:

This is a particular problem in Britain, which is already a surveillance society, but expect the other industrialized "democracies" to follow suit eventually.

Several weeks ago, I came across this excerpt from science fiction author David Brin from his upcoming book, The Transparent Society:

Consider City Number One. In this place, all the myriad cameras report their urban scenes straight to Police Central, where security officers use sophisticated image-processors to scan for infractions against the public order -- or perhaps against an established way of thought. Citizens walk the streets aware that any word or deed may be noted by agents of some mysterious bureau.

Now let's skip across space and time.

At first sight, things seem quite similar in City Number Two. Again, there are ubiquitous cameras, perched on every vantage point. Only here we soon find a crucial difference. These devices do not report to the secret police. Rather, each and every citizen of this metropolis can lift his or her wristwatch/TV and call up images from any camera in town.

Here a late-evening stroller checks to make sure no one lurks beyond the corner she is about to turn.

Over there a tardy young man dials to see if his dinner date still waits for him by a city fountain.

A block away, an anxious parent scans the area and finds which way her child wandered off.

Over by the mall, a teenage shoplifter is taken into custody gingerly, with minute attention to ritual and rights, because the arresting officer knows the entire process is being scrutinized by untold numbers who watch intently, lest her neutral professionalism lapse.

In City Two, such micro cameras are banned from some indoor places... but not Police Headquarters! There, any citizen may tune in on bookings, arraignments, and especially the camera control room itself, making sure that the agents on duty look out for violent crime, and only crime.

That is a surveillance society I can buy into. I already make extensive use of the Ontario Ministry of Transportation's COMPASS Cameras to check up on traffic on major highways, and to a lesser extent the City of Toronto's RESCU Cameras. Cameras throughout the downtown core with the feeds available to all with web access would have infinite uses. How long is the lineup outside that hot club? Any street festivals that might block crosstown traffic? What are the demographics of people walking through the mall?

The Powers That Be always tell us that if we're not guilty, we have nothing to hide. I agree wholeheartedly. I have few problems with my personal finances being open for scrutiny. But in exchange I want to see the tax returns and stock portfolios of every corporate CEO, every senior bureaucrat, and every elected representative of government. Think it will happen?

In any event, if the surveillance society takes hold, the public damn well better have access to all footage and feeds. Our taxes paid for it, after all.

2000 years ago, Juvenal asked Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who watches the watchmen?) Hopefully, we all do.