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You Are Being Watched For Your Own Safety

By Kyrrin in Culture
Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 09:27:39 AM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)

A little paranoid about always being on surveillance cameras? Or did you even know that you were? There's a group called the Surveillance Camera Players that want to call attention to the fact that we are being monitored, by co-opting the cameras and putting on silent adaptations of classic works of literature such as 1984, The Raven, and Waiting for Godot.

It's becoming more and more common these days to have "security cameras" all over the place, watching and monitoring our every move. High schools, colleges, office buildings, ATMs, stores ... even public parks and street corners. When was the last time you really took note of the fact when you walked into a drugstore or a 7-11 that your image was being recorded and potentially monitored?

The justification so often given is that it's for the safety of residents/shoppers/citizens; that cameras are there to reduce crime and provide for the public safety. And in today's climate of "we must protect the children!", personal liberty often takes a backseat to perceived safety. (Yes, we've all heard that Benjamin Franklin quote.)

Perhaps people do realize that they are being recorded, though; perhaps it's just another manifestation of the same kind of quest-for-glory mentality that caused Survivor's ratings to skyrocket and have led to how many episodes of The Real World. It all really started with the FOX show COPS, where people who were caught in the middle of a crime still signed waivers to allow their images to be broadcast on television -- all, perhaps, in the quest for their fifteen minutes of fame.

A more paranoid individual might draw a parallel between the two facts -- condition people early that surveillance cameras can be a good thing, that they lead to attention and fame, and then the people won't protest their use. I'm not that paranoid; I don't think that anyone "in charge" is intelligent enough or resourceful enough to do it on purpose. It's happening subconsciously, though.

The Surveillance Camera Players group manifesto includes the reasoning:
It is important to remind oneself of the relationship between the eye of the media and that of the corporate police state -- for they are both the guardian of the commodity, however nebulous and ephemeral that commodity may become. As a tactic designed to point out the paradox of a system that turns the lens on a public that has been taught to place more importance on images recorded by cameras than images seen by their own eyes, we propose Guerilla Programming of Video Surveillance Equipment.

What a great idea! Do you think that if more people realized how much of our lives were monitored and recorded, it would lead to more of a backlash against such devices; or do you think that people are, for the most part, content or even eager to have their public activities recorded?


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Do you get upset at security cameras?
o Yes! Stop recording me! It's my life! 40%
o No, I don't mind. Let them record; I'm not doing anything wrong. 20%
o No, I like being recorded. 6%
o My personal magnetic field disrupts video camera images! 26%
o No, but I do get upset at Inoshiro. 6%

Votes: 49
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Surveillan ce Camera Players
o Also by Kyrrin

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You Are Being Watched For Your Own Safety | 32 comments (32 topical, editorial, 0 hidden)
Rebels and conformists (4.25 / 8) (#1)
by tftp on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 04:54:56 AM EST

do you think that people are, for the most part, content or even eager to have their public activities recorded?

Every society has people who are in control of their own lives (or at least feel that way.) Those people are often called "rebels". They do what they think is right (despite of public opinion). Some of such people may think that cameras are unnecessary (because these people can defend themselves) and even evil because cameras spy upon them.

But majority of people are conformists who accept the fate with little or no struggle. They are easy to control and brainwash. They don't mind being recorded, traced on Internet, their personal info sold etc. They don't want to realize that the reality is that bad. It is much more pleasant to submit to songs of sirens. Stanislaw Lem described that quite well :-)

In my opinion, it is difficult (to say the least) to convert a rebel into a conformist, or vice versa. Even when that happens (well, maybe a brick fell on his head) this is statistically insignificant. The proportion of rebels vs. conformists is determined as early as in school - and maybe even earlier. Maybe it's in genes, I don't know.

An interesting theory... (4.00 / 5) (#2)
by Kyrrin on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 05:05:12 AM EST

...and one that might explain why the rest of my family think it's so cute when I get all up in arms about matters of privacy. Which would be your argument against it being genetic; nearly everyone else in my family is a conformist, by your definitions, leaving me the sole "rebel". ^_^

I don't think that it's inflexible, though. From the stories my parents tell me, I'd say that they were "rebels" when they were my age; now, they're pretty much content to let their privacy be eroded. I think it has to do with complacency, rather than predisposition; I think it's possible for a rebel to become a conformist (by being burned out on things) or a conformist to become a rebel (by having his/her eyes opened by some dramatic event). And I think that the SCP troupe is trying to do the latter, which is why I say more power to 'em!

"I'm the screen, the blinding light; I'm the screen, I work at night. I see today with a newsprint fray, my night is colored headache grey, don't wake me with so much..." -- REM
[ Parent ]
rebel (4.25 / 4) (#10)
by gregholmes on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 06:36:36 AM EST

Every society has people who are in control of their own lives (or at least feel that way.) Those people are often called "rebels". They do what they think is right (despite of public opinion).

Though we probably agree about the cameras, your "rebel" theory has annoyed me for years.

  1. It's rather self-aggrandizing, isn't it? There's no doubt which group you think you fall in.
  2. Sharing the attitude and worldview of your peers doesn't exactly make you a rebel. Every college bull-session sits around and shares this "rebel" theory, in a bout of self-congratulation. It reminds me of that great claymation Rudolph Christmas special, where the elf says "let's be independent, together!".

[ Parent ]
UK Data Protection Act. (4.25 / 8) (#3)
by hugorune on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 05:23:33 AM EST

I don't know if any UK readers saw Monday night's episode of the Mark Thomas show, but he highlighted the fact that surveillance cameras in the UK are subject to the Data Protection act. This means that if you are filmed on a surveillance camera (whether police operated or privately operated) then you can request a copy of whatever they have recorded of you for a small fee (about ten quid). He's currently running a competition for the best surveillance camera movie.

Phil Harrison
You guys are lucky... (4.33 / 3) (#5)
by Kyrrin on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 05:39:48 AM EST

You're lucky over there in the UK; you have the Data Protection Act to fall back on. In the good old US of A, nobody has to tell you that you're being recorded, and no one has to give you any of the data they've collected on you. I think I'd be a little less paranoid about my privacy if I could just bloody see what they were collecting about me.

"I'm the screen, the blinding light; I'm the screen, I work at night. I see today with a newsprint fray, my night is colored headache grey, don't wake me with so much..." -- REM
[ Parent ]
Data Protection vs Freedom? (4.00 / 5) (#9)
by Morn on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 06:23:00 AM EST

Maybe I shouldn't post this, as it may come across as a little trolly (that's 'like a troll', not a wheeled table), but here we go anyway (bye-bye Mojo :-):

You're lucky over there in the UK; you have the Data Protection Act to fall back on. In the good old US of A, nobody has to tell you that you're being recorded, and no one has to give you any of the data they've collected on you. I think I'd be a little less paranoid about my privacy if I could just bloody see what they were collecting about me.
I find it interesting to note that our 'luckyness' has been provided by the government taking away a 'freedom' from the data 'gatherers' (presuming you count the right to non-harmfully use equipment you own as a 'freedom').

[ Parent ]
a public space is a public space (4.11 / 9) (#4)
by streetlawyer on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 05:31:24 AM EST

I've never been able to take this one seriously (despite having been, in my younger days, an occasional urinator against walls). A public space is public. A CCTV camera just changes the topology of the public space in the sense of creating a new line of sight into it. If they started putting cameras into private spaces, I'd be worried, but I can only really see CCTV in public spaces as a benefit; it's certainly made the centre of the town I live in a safer place to be.

I've written elsewhere about the tradeoff between liberty and security, but this isn't one of those cases. There is no meaningful reduction in liberty from having CCTV cameras in public places. Or to put it another way, the freedom to urinate against public buildings is a freedom, and in some cases a damn useful one, but it is not a liberty that is really worth fighting for.

Just because things have been nonergodic so far, doesn't mean that they'll be nonergodic forever

I actually -almost- agree with you. (3.50 / 2) (#6)
by Kyrrin on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 05:46:13 AM EST

I'm not all that paranoid about security cameras, honestly; I see your point, and I will grant you that may be a tangible benefit to having security cameras installed. I wouldn't be willing to get arrested to protest them, that's for sure.

I'm really more interested in people's reactions to public surveillance as part of the slippery-slope idea that once we get people accustomed to a lack of privacy -- indeed, no expectation of privacy -- the other, more egregious abuses of personal liberty can start...

"I'm the screen, the blinding light; I'm the screen, I work at night. I see today with a newsprint fray, my night is colored headache grey, don't wake me with so much..." -- REM
[ Parent ]
corrigendum for pedants (3.00 / 3) (#8)
by streetlawyer on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 06:10:27 AM EST

Of course, the use of CCTV doesn't transform the topology of any public space, and it's rather hard to see how it could. What it does is changes the topology of the spatial arrangement the set of points from which public space P is visible.

I feel much better now.

Just because things have been nonergodic so far, doesn't mean that they'll be nonergodic forever
[ Parent ]

speaking of which (2.60 / 5) (#12)
by drew irs on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 07:18:09 AM EST

your last comment about being able to take a piss in a public place reminded me off a little episode that happened to be a few months ago when i was visiting some friends up in minnesota and we all got really drunk and, well I needed to take a whizz before something really went bad!!! so i went round a corner and quickly pulled my lizard out and went for it, but what happened, a police siren starts and it's getting closer to me!! this was NOT good news for me at the time as you can imagine, and i almost peed on my shoes before i realised that the cops had absolutely nothing to do with me at all!!

but anyway, the point which i was trying to make is that although having lots of cameras did make the center of town safer (unless you're trying to have a piss! heh heh) it only means that you are more likely to be attacked where there aren't any cameras!! and my friend had his house broken into three times in the year after they installed a load of cameras in town! three times!! and they stole his computer and all of his pornography, which he wasn't very happy about, i can tell you. and if you aren't next to the police station then they won't do anything to help you, so you end up with more crime just in different places, which is no good at all!!!

[ Parent ]

Who owns the cameras? (3.25 / 4) (#13)
by B'Trey on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 07:18:52 AM EST

I fully agree when it comes to business surveilance cameras. Security cameras in 7-11, Wal-Mart, the ATM, banks, etc. don't bother me in the least.

I'm not quite so accepting, however, when it comes to government placed cameras. There's simply too much potential for abuse.

[ Parent ]

Where I disagree... (3.66 / 3) (#14)
by slaytanic killer on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 07:31:01 AM EST

I think you half-believe what you write. The public is not a lower class than its government, despite seeming so at times. This change to the "public topology," setting up cameras on every street corner, can very well be threatening and oppressive. Legislature can be passed against the use of this, just as the CIA is legally barred from conducting operations within the US. While of course the CIA still conducts US operations, it at least does so quietly and not to the level it could.

[ Parent ]
BTW (3.00 / 3) (#17)
by slaytanic killer on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 09:06:25 AM EST

The CIA can probably conduct operations in the US, just not against US citizens.

[ Parent ]
But how public is "public"? (4.00 / 2) (#22)
by DeanT on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 10:34:23 AM EST

... A public space is public. A CCTV camera just changes the topology of the public space in the sense of creating a new line of sight into it. If they started putting cameras into private spaces, I'd be worried...
So would a department store dressing room be public or private? Some stores do have cameras pointed there to attempt to catch shoplifters.

Personally, them watching me doesn't bother me; watching my wife and daughters does bother me. Seems like you're entitled to some degree of privacy even in "public".

[ Parent ]

Both good and bad (4.00 / 1) (#28)
by dyskordus on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 08:43:23 PM EST

I find nothing wrong with security cameras at the bank, convenience stores, etc, because they are often targets for robbery/theft. A business has the right to protect it's assets and the lives of it's employees from those who would take them by force.

I have mixed feelings about employers in different situations monitoring their employees with security cameras. For example I am writing this at work, and am currently under video surveillence. I doubt that the office I work in will be robbed, but there has been trouble in the past with computer equipment walking out the door.

What I do not like is the assumption (on my employer's part) that I am going to steal something as soon as the camera is not on me.

As for cameras in restrooms/dressingrooms, I am definately opposed to them, the tradeoff of personal privacy for company security is far too great there.

I am definatelyopposed to the police, government, whoever, mounting security cameras outdoors. This is the same as being under constant police surveillence, which smells too much like a police state to me.
"Reality is less than television."-Brian Oblivion.
[ Parent ]

My Weird Humour (3.40 / 5) (#7)
by 0x00 on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 05:51:13 AM EST

Whenever I see the "You may be photographed while using this ATM" sticker, I always imagine a photographer tapping me on the shoulder and asking me to smile.



Clowns feed their card into an ATM that's switched off.

My humour's a little different (3.25 / 4) (#11)
by tetsuo on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 06:44:40 AM EST

I keep one of my middle fingers raised at whatever looks like a camera the whole time I'm there.


[ Parent ]
3.5 for this comment? (1.00 / 2) (#21)
by cryon on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 10:06:00 AM EST


[ Parent ]
Explanation: (none / 0) (#31)
by ucblockhead on Fri Jan 12, 2001 at 01:41:15 AM EST

3 = average = none.

This is k5. We're all tools - duxup
[ Parent ]
To misquote Scott Adams (3.00 / 6) (#15)
by Armaphine on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 07:32:35 AM EST

"I already have the best anti-snooping protection available: I am unbelievably boring."

My apologies to Scott Adams and the quote that I butchered, but that's my view on it. Look at your life. Is there really anything in your life that is so interesting that someone would want to watch you do it? While I don't agree with placing video cameras everywhere (unless I get the stuff from Enemy of the State with it), I really doubt that most people have anything to fear.

Question authority. Don't ask why, just do it.

they aren't watching you (3.33 / 3) (#16)
by streetlawyer on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 08:31:00 AM EST

They're watching all the interesting people who might do things like having unusual political opinions. On the other hand, they can watch you without using CCTV, so I don't really see why people are caring so much about the technology rather than the system itself.

Just because things have been nonergodic so far, doesn't mean that they'll be nonergodic forever
[ Parent ]
how do they do it? (2.50 / 4) (#20)
by drew irs on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 09:49:25 AM EST

i was wondering exactly how they manage to keep a watch on people who the spooks think are dangerous or unamerican or whatever crap they are calling it this year. i mean, surely that's a lot of effort for very little reward!!! the thing is, one of my friends once went out with this girl, and he really liked her, but then he found out she was a communist and now he's really scared that the government is out to get him!! i told him he was being a retard, but i don't really know how much effort they put into this sort of thing!

[ Parent ]

That's missing the point (4.50 / 2) (#26)
by dennis on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 05:42:26 PM EST

I don't want to offend you, a lot of people make this argument, but it's a very self-centered and shortsighted viewpoint.

The problem I have with surveillance is not that I'm doing anything that I think people would be interested in, or that I have anything to hide. And it's not that I think the people promoting surveillance have nefarious motives. For the most part I think they have legitimate law-enforcement objectives in mind.

The problem is that once the capability is there, you've made it easy for people down the road whose motives are not so pure. You've made it easy for someone to outlaw certain political opinions, and enforce that law. You've made it almost impossible for the government to be overthrown even if the majority of the population desire it--which is fine if the government stays democratic, but not so fine if the people behind the surveillance decide to change things. And if you think this is paranoid crap, you should bone up on the history of the 20th century.

[ Parent ]

Plato and the Ring... (3.66 / 6) (#18)
by lucas on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 09:27:21 AM EST

Plato once spoke of Socrates asking what would happen if men had a ring which would allow them to turn invisible and do whatever they wished without being seen by anyone. Since most men would use it (albeit perhaps not initially) for bad or selfish purposes, he reasoned, it must mean that men, in general, are inherently or naturally bad. If they had the ability to have sex with whomever they wanted, steal as much gold as they wanted, etc. without getting caught this urge would supercede the morality imposed by civil society.

The removal of cameras is a similar principle. If you remove the constant view of something, people will tend to return to negative or selfish behaviors. Since the people doing these things may neglect their belief that some sort of deity (e.g., God) is perceiving them, there must be some sort of tangible symbol that someone is watching you and that you will be punished.

Before they had cameras in the mirrors of dressing rooms, for instance, people used them to steal merchandise and, in some circumstances, worse things such as rape. The flipside is that now you have someone watching you while you change.

My view is that, if you are (or try to be) good-natured, what have you to hide? If you're not a thief, rapist, or a drug-dealer, they're not interested in you.

Cameras are an invasion of privacy, though fighting for absolute privacy seems to be futile today. Rather, it seems our efforts would be best focused on erosion of privacy and personal sovereignty as pertains to activities that harm none or very few.

Cameras in changing rooms (4.00 / 2) (#23)
by Yer Mom on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 12:12:20 PM EST

Cameras in changing rooms? Ick.

While the company that owns the changing room might not be interested in you if you're not a thief, rapist or drug dealer, I'd bet somebody is.

We've probably all been spammed by those voyeur-porn sites, right? What better source of pictures than slipping a bit of money to someone with access to one of these cameras? If they get found out, try the next store along...
Smoke crack. Worship Satan. Admin Unix.
[ Parent ]

Yeah, cameras are in most dressing rooms... (4.00 / 3) (#24)
by lucas on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 12:22:40 PM EST

Yeah, definitely... I try to face away from the camera when I change.

They're behind the mirror; take a closer look the next time you're at Macy's, Foley's, Filene's -- wherever... It's actually a one-way mirror that has a camera inside, maybe about half way down.

Some stores are a little bit more civil about it, saying "This dressing room is monitored by FEMALE loss-prevention associates".

I knew a guy who worked loss-prevention at Marshall's. After he told me some great stories about it, I conceded that I am really uncomfortable now changing in those places.

It's also on video tape, so that's another great thing to worry about.

[ Parent ]
Dunno about over here, though (none / 0) (#30)
by Yer Mom on Thu Jan 11, 2001 at 07:53:48 AM EST

I'm in the UK, so I'm not sure whether that sort of thing's legal or not.

I do know that when you take your photos to be developed, the staff might take copies of any, uh, "interesting" pictures for themselves. At least if the shop my friend used to work at is typical. Hurrah for digital cameras! :)
Smoke crack. Worship Satan. Admin Unix.
[ Parent ]

Clerks (4.00 / 1) (#29)
by fluffy grue on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 11:34:15 PM EST

That reminds me of that scene in Clerks where Dante and his girlfriend are sitting behind the counter and chatting, while there's a sign pointing to a pile of money saying, "Please make exact change." Dante's explanation as to why it works is because people assume it's a trap and that they're being monitored, and so they act honorably out of paranoia.

Which in turn reminds me of one of those honor system-based candy tray thingies that was at this one software company I used to work at. There was a big problem with people 'borrowing' candy without paying for it, and so the guy who filled the thing (it was his business) added a sign to it saying, "Character is defined by what you do when there isn't anybody watching." All that did was cause people to start leaving IOUs, and so the guy decided to cut his losses and stop servicing that particular business.

(For what it's worth, I always paid for everything I took from it, well before the sign went up. It's too bad that apparently nobody else did...)
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.
I have a master's degree in science!

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]
[ Parent ]

They can watch me.... (4.00 / 5) (#19)
by MrMikey on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 09:32:06 AM EST

so long as there are monitors nearby where I can watch them. "Who watches the watchers?" I say, if they can watch me, balance the power by letting me watch them. It's the ones who watch in enclosed little rooms that bother me.

Oh, and if you're one of those people who doesn't think this is a big deal, imagine mixing ubiquitous monitoring with directional microphones and face recognition software: surveillance of every public space, with tracking and monitoring of "troublemakers"... which in our country could quickly become anyone who dares to be other than a complacent sheep. No thanks. Freedom matters, damnit!

I'm a watcher (4.00 / 2) (#25)
by GreenCrackBaby on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 05:25:10 PM EST

The office I worked in overlooked a normal intersection. However, at least once per week there would be a major crash at the intersection -- for no other reason except bad driving.

To make light of this, I put up my camcorder and set it to continuous record. About an hour later I caught a car smashing into two young children riding their bikes. Those of you who live in Edmonton probably saw the clip on the news a few months ago.

I didn't do this because I want to catch people changing in a locker room. I did this because I'm really sick of bad drivers and want to ensure that anyone who caused a collision at that intersection was held accountable. There's nothing worse than seeing those signs "Did you see an accident here on June 10th? ... "

How people can view what I was doing as wrong I don't know.

Steve Mann to the rescue. (4.00 / 2) (#27)
by Apuleius on Wed Jan 10, 2001 at 05:53:39 PM EST

Steve Mann, former Media Lab cyborg, current University of Toronto cyborg, investigated what happens when you turn people into camera-mounted cyborg and turn the tables on all of the establishments that have surveillance cameras. A lot of the time when he or his students tried to conduct normal transactions while in cyborg mode, proprietors did not like this and would ask them toleave.

Something to think about.

There is a time and a place for everything, and it's called college. (The South Park chef)

Watching you? (none / 0) (#32)
by kaivalya on Mon Jan 15, 2001 at 07:34:46 AM EST

I used to live in a suburb on the east side of the San Francisco bay area that was refered to as "the most watched city in the world." It got this title because of the number of cameras per square mile was higher than any other city. I can't say I really minded, most of the cameras were there to catch people running red lights.

The thing I never understood about the how camera argument is what makes you think that the "watchers" are watching you? Why would "they" care so much as to watch you? Managers of 7-11 watch you on the surveilance cameras to see if your shoplifting, not because they care about you. Corner street cameras are for watching the street, not to follow people around. A little egomaniacal don't you think?

Anyways, what I really wanted to say was that the corner street cameras helped me out. Because of a random corner camera in Berkeley, a man that commited a crime a against me was positively identified within a few days when he otherwise may not have been found.

Another circumstance that was positively affected by cameras was again when I was living in the SF bayarea, the apartment complexes I lived in had horrorable car theft problems (which I know about too well). Lots of simple measures were tryed, neighbourhood watch, better lighting system under the carports, etc.. Someone in a neighbouring building bought a gutted security camera with their own money. It didn't work, but a little bit of cat5 stapled next to the camera on the third floor where is was mounted pointing toward the car port went a long ways. Last I heard that building didn't have one car theft in 6 months, which is pretty impressive considering the previous 6 months had 9 reported thefts.

Do not expect to have privacy in public places.


You Are Being Watched For Your Own Safety | 32 comments (32 topical, 0 editorial, 0 hidden)
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