Town Outsources Video Camera Surveillance To Resident Volunteers?

from the what-could-possibly-go-wrong dept

Talk about a bad idea in action. We've seen plenty of stories about the growing "surveillance" society that we live in these days -- with cc cameras showing up pretty much everywhere in large cities. But who watches the cameras? Well, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, apparently the answer is anyone who volunteers to do so. First, the city decided to install a ton of cameras -- more than either San Francisco or Boston, despite a massive difference in size. Then, recognizing how difficult it is to monitor everything, the city turned over the managing of the cameras to a private entity who is employing an army of volunteers to not just watch, but control the cameras, and having them "report" any suspicious activities. The article notes that studies have shown such cameras may be limited in their effectiveness (there's no evidence of a decrease in violent crime from them, but some evidence of a decrease in "property" crime).

Still what's really bizarre is allowing unpaid volunteers to man the cameras -- with even the officials from the city admitting that training for the camera operators has been "informal," but that they try to "weed out voyeurs and anyone who might use the tapes for blackmail or other illegal activity." Well, phew. Doesn't that make you feel more comfortable? And then there's this lovely quote from a local business owner who likes the program: "There's nothing wrong with instilling fear." Er... actually, there are lots of things wrong with it...

This actually reminds me a bit of Jay Walker's (of Priceline fame) old idea of allowing individuals at home to monitor secure locations via video streams to their desktop. The idea there was quite a bit different though. It wasn't to watch over people wandering around a downtown area, but to put the cameras on secure areas where no one should ever be -- and the idea was that multiple people would all have the same boring screens up at the same time, and if suddenly someone did show up, hopefully people would notice it and hit the "someone's there" button, to alert security. That idea didn't go very far, but at least it was limited to areas where there weren't any privacy issues. The Lancaster plan, on the other hand, is just scary.

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  1. identicon
    Beta, 23 Jun 2009 @ 8:24am

    image of the future

    Imagine cameras all over every public space, all their feeds available to the public and retained forever. Cameras pointing at every window and door, character recog that allows you to track specific cars, facial recog that allows you to track anyone who doesn't wear a mask. Anyone who developes an interest in you can, with a few keystrokes, construct a complete video log of all your comings and goings, past and present, and you won't know it. Whenever you step out the door (or past an unblinded window) you are on camera. If you commit little crimes like speeding, or little indiscretions by a fountain (or at home with the curtains open), you will never know when they'll come back to haunt you.

    This is coming. There is simply no good way to prevent it. There will be abuses, and for a time the authorities will try to be the only ones who get to commit them (e.g. the police will track you without a warrant because, hey, you're in public, but if you track them it's a crime because, well, because).

    Questions of "expectation of privacy" aside, there is a profound value in being able to walk around and feel unwatched. There is a profound freedom in being able to jaywalk now and then with real impunity, to not worry about every little thing in the past. That's what we're losing.

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