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Davy

Cameras everywhere

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In the UK (where I live), there are reportedly more CCTV cameras than in any other country. Opponents are concerned about privacy and civil liberties, but here's an idea by computer scientist Eric Hehner, which would appear to solve the problem. I think it's a pretty cool idea. What do you think?

Cameras Everywhere

Eric Hehner

University of Toronto

I propose that we mount cameras everywhere, on all streets, in all parks, and in all public places. The cameras should be so numerous that every part of every public area is covered by at least one camera. And I propose that the scenes viewed by all these cameras be recorded. And finally, I propose that all these scenes, both live and recorded, be available on the internet for everyone who wishes to see them. You just visit the cameraseverywhere website, tell it a location and time, and it shows you the scene. Navigation arrows move the scene to the next camera in your chosen direction. That's the whole proposal. This essay is about the benefits of, and objections to, this proposal.

The main benefit is an enormous reduction in crime, and the improvement in catching anyone who does commit a crime. After a crime has been reported, the police can see who left the crime scene, follow their recorded movements from camera to camera to camera, and find out where they went, right up to the present moment. And equally easily, the recorded movements of the people at a crime scene can be followed backward from the crime, leading up to it. The ease with which criminals will be caught and convicted is the reason that crime will be reduced. On the other side of that same coin, fewer innocent people will be wrongly charged and convicted.

If you want to know the current state of road repair at some location, just look. If you want to know whether the public garden is open right now, just look. People will find surprising and wonderful uses for the ability to see any public space at their fingertips.

One objection to the proposal might be cost. But the cost of cameras has been decreasing, and it is now or very soon will be low enough, especially if cameras are bought in the very large quantities proposed. And against this cost we must balance the current cost of crime, both to the victims, and to the community that pays for police investigations and court cases. Just the monetary costs of crime that will be saved may be more than enough to pay for the cameras. And of course the nonmonetary costs of crime (lives, agony) that will be saved are incalculable.

To some civil liberties advocates, this proposal is their worst nightmare. They would remind us of George Orwell's warning in the novel 1984: “big brother is watching”. They would remind us of the very real crimes committed by police in societies where the police have too much power and not enough accountability. And they would say that letting everyone monitor everyone's movements is just too great a loss of precious personal privacy. These are serious concerns, and I want to address them seriously.

In recent years, police brutality has been caught and punished when, by luck, someone happens to record it on their video-camera or phone-camera, and sends the video to the news media. According to the proposal in this essay, all crimes committed in a public place will be recorded, including those by police. And for those crimes committed in a private place and not recorded, the criminal can be tracked whenever they leave the private place and enter public space, even if they are police. That's because the images are available to everyone, not just the police. The ancient question “Who polices the police?” now has an answer: everyone.

There are many reasons someone might not want their movements tracked; some of them are good legitimate reasons, and some are not. I'll talk about three examples: cheating on your spouse, being homosexual, and buying a surprise present.

Cheating on your spouse is not illegal (in our society), but one could argue that it is immoral, or in some other way wrong. If your objection to cameras everywhere is just that you cannot get away with immoral or bad behavior, then I have no patience and no respect for your objection. Or, one could argue that an extramarital affair is not morally wrong, but if your spouse knew, they would be hurt, and if they could prove it, you could get hurt. To that particular argument one might reply that a relationship based on secrecy is shaky, and the cameras are not the real problem. But my argument is quite different; I won't presume to judge morality or relationships. In today's world, a rich person can hire a private detective to track their spouse's movements, and determine whether they are having an affair. Cameras everywhere just gives poor people the same right that rich people now have. And who would argue that the right to track someone should be reserved for rich people?

Homosexuality was illegal in our society fifty years ago, and it still is today in some other societies. A homosexual had an excellent reason to keep an affair secret. There is no suggestion here that cameras should invade the private spaces where affairs take place, but just tracking someone's movements through public spaces could provide weak evidence and strong suspicion of a homosexual affair. When a homosexual affair was discovered, it could cost them their friends, their jobs, their freedom, and in extreme cases, their lives. A homosexual, or anyone sympathetic to the suffering they endured, might be tempted to say “Thank goodness there weren't cameras everywhere back then!”. There has been a great change in our society over the past fifty years. Homosexuality is no longer illegal, and most people do not consider it to be immoral. How did that change happen? It happened because homosexuals came out of the closet; they went public. Secrecy was not their protector; it was their prison. Those brave people who came out first did suffer, but they encouraged others to follow, and soon a parade of gays and lesbians shouted: we are here, we are doing nothing wrong, so get used to us! In an era when we didn't know who was homosexual (because they kept it secret), heterosexuals could believe that all the good people they knew were heterosexual, and that homosexuals were somehow evil. But today we see people we know are both homosexual and good people, so the misconception dissolves. If there are any similar issues today involving activities that are moral but stigmatized (atheist? socialist?), cameras everywhere can only hasten their acceptance.

Suppose you are going to buy a surprise present for someone. It's not a crime, and you are not ashamed of it, but you still don't want them to know where you are going. How do you keep it a secret if there are cameras everywhere? Fortunately, most people will not spend much of their time watching the scene under the public cameras; unless you are looking for something specific, it will be very boring. So you're probably ok. But they could track you if they want to, and spoil the surprise. If that's the price for a substantial reduction in crime, it's well worth it.

In this proposal, I have divided our world into public space and private space. I advocate putting cameras in all public spaces where anyone is entitled to be and see with their own eyes; I do not suggest putting cameras in private spaces and showing private scenes to people who are not entitled to see them. But the division between public and private is not always clear: there are spaces whose status is intermediate between public and private. For example, there are buildings whose lobby and hallways are shared among the occupants of the building, but not among the general public. It is quite common for such buildings to have cameras in these spaces, and to make the images available on a television channel just to the occupants of the building. So the general principle is this: the images from the cameras should be made available to all and only those people who are entitled to be there and to see in person what the camera sees. I do not advocate any invasion of privacy.

Google Earth makes satellite images available to everyone on the internet. It therefore provides some of the same capability as cameras everywhere. At present, the resolution of Google Earth images is not quite good enough to recognize an individual. And the images show only the tops of people's heads, which is not the most advantageous angle. And there are public spaces that are covered over, and not seen by a satellite. And there are uncovered private spaces invaded by satellite images. Google Maps will show you street scenes, but not current scenes, and no-one is identifiable. For these reasons, Google Earth and Google Maps do not quite do what cameras everywhere can do.

In some cities, especially in England, cameras already cover an area of the city center. Initially there was a lot of opposition from civil liberties groups and privacy advocates. But after a couple of years experience, the crime rate dropped so much that all skeptics were convinced. The people of those cities do not want to go back to the days before their cameras. But the images from these cameras are available only to the police, not to the general public. Without public access, the problem of crime by police is not solved, and there are no other benefits.

There is already an amazing amount of information instantly accessible to everyone on the internet. Information can be used for good or ill. In most people's opinion, the good uses that flow from easy access to so much information outweigh the bad uses by a lot; we would never vote to abolish the internet. The proposal in this essay is just to use the internet to provide everyone with easy access to certain information, the scene in all public places, that they already have a right to see. I cannot guess what all the uses will be. I guess that some uses will be good and some bad. And I expect that the good will greatly outweigh the bad.

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It is called the Panopticon Society (Discipline and Punishby Michel Foucault, 1976), after a model prison in which the jailers have absolute visibility of all cells. I agree that it is potentially disturbing. I agree that it can be gotten around with simple masks and complex make-up. (The UK still has that problem: when hoodlums wear hoodies the camera cannot tell who they are. Cameras would be ubiquitous beyond your imagination to capture faces and other details. (Cameras on tall poles cannot see down into the face.) Cameras can be disabled. Hacking could re-route inputs and outputs.

All of that being as it may, though, I agree that this is actually the way the world is going. Rather than a zillion small cameras looking at you, though, I predict that we will be able to "tune in" on what you see, hear, feel, and do, with imagining technologies. We are already awash in radio frequencies. All that is required is a way to transduce and resolve the signals into convenient patterns. We may well have a zillion small cameras on the way to that. And we do and will have eyes in the skies, from satellites to drones. (Houston police drone below.)

One final note, though, speaking as both an Objectivist and a criminologist, the incidence of street crime is miniscule compared to harms committed by ordinary people working for corporations and governments. A panopticon society will not protect you from them, but protect them from you. Being sold by the claim that cameras everywhere will make us all safer from street criminals and generally all more moral is only the sugar coating on the poison pill.

But again, I see this coming.

Houston+Police+Drone.jpg

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I looked through the Panopticon in Edinburgh. Whatever the social and ethical implications, this certainly looks like a job creator, how many people would have to just look at the recordings day in and day out?

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ps the Panopticon was wonderful to look through, and makes me think of RC's questions about a Big Picture. The panopticon was the biggest contemporary picture I have ever seen. I am trying to remember if I drew any conclusions from it. Only middle distance, geographical ones.

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Further, as a pet theme of mine is that politics is the result of history plus geography, and that ideology must lag behind--- there is a new book about politics defined by geography, by Kaplan. Is anyone acquainted with this writer? I have not researched, somebody just mentioned it to me verbally.

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It is called the Panopticon Society (Discipline and Punishby Michel Foucault, 1976), after a model prison in which the jailers have absolute visibility of all cells. I agree that it is potentially disturbing. I agree that it can be gotten around with simple masks and complex make-up. (The UK still has that problem: when hoodlums wear hoodies the camera cannot tell who they are. Cameras would be ubiquitous beyond your imagination to capture faces and other details. (Cameras on tall poles cannot see down into the face.) Cameras can be disabled. Hacking could re-route inputs and outputs.

Michael,

The key difference is that what Hehner is proposing doesn't involve an "agency". There is no big brother in the Orwellian sense, rather, everyone is "big brother", but only in regard to public spaces. Private spaces are still private, but the Panopticon concept seems to remove the boundary between public and private.

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Davey,

Cameras everywhere, AND connected to the internet?

The idea is anathema for me, but then I value privacy highly.

If not quite social engineering, it smacks of social tinkering by some Utopian.

His rationalizations are sleazily unappealing, too.

Hell, I like an element of risk.

Like the man said: "Any society that would give up a little liberty

to gain a little security will deserve neither, and lose both."

Nations of effete busy-bodies, that's the outcome, I think.

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whYNOT,

Fair enough. But it's not really "AND" connected to the internet. The idea only works IF the cameras are connected to the internet - that's the whole point.

I don't have a problem with the privacy issue; if you're in a shopping centre, railway station or other public space, do you you think about privacy issues then? if you want privacy, stay at home!

Actually, on reflection, I think Michael's point about the relative unimportance of street crime is making this idea less attractive for me. Something like 80% of that kind of crime is committed by people on drugs or alcohol; I wonder whether the presence of cameras would be much of deterrent for such people. Also, it seems that cameras aren't so useful for catching criminals either - http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2008/may/06/ukcrime1

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A difficult one to explain, or understand: I - and some others I know - enjoy privacy as much when I'm out in public. Mixing with people at large on equal terms, relating to some by chance or by choice, but keeping autonomy. If you don't get it, you won't get it.

;)

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The key difference is that what Hehner is proposing doesn't involve an "agency". There is no big brother in the Orwellian sense, rather, everyone is "big brother", but only in regard to public spaces. Private spaces are still private, but the Panopticon concept seems to remove the boundary between public and private.

Right. And that speaks to Daunce's question about who will be watching the cameras. No one -- and everyone... We have this now, actually, just not in this level of proposed density. When WEBCAMS were launched maybe 10 years ago, they were a rage. But even now, if you look for an address on Google Maps, you can get pictures. And you can search for active cameras in the area... almost any area... Iran and North Korea are not options, but the civilized world is yours for the viewing.

In this case and for the wider subject it does make us more conscious of being in public... or should...

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The key difference is that what Hehner is proposing doesn't involve an "agency". There is no big brother in the Orwellian sense, rather, everyone is "big brother", but only in regard to public spaces. Private spaces are still private, but the Panopticon concept seems to remove the boundary between public and private.

Right. And that speaks to Daunce's question about who will be watching the cameras. No one -- and everyone... We have this now, actually, just not in this level of proposed density. When WEBCAMS were launched maybe 10 years ago, they were a rage. But even now, if you look for an address on Google Maps, you can get pictures. And you can search for active cameras in the area... almost any area... Iran and North Korea are not options, but the civilized world is yours for the viewing.

In this case and for the wider subject it does make us more conscious of being in public... or should...

Exactly, Michael. And the question of hacking and tampering is also worrisome. What if some malicious person mocked up video of you and Jonathan, say, prancing around to tiddleywink music outside a Chick'N'Fil? the only beneficiaries would be the lawyers.

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This topic can be answered if one understands the nature of a)property and b)what constitutes privacy.

If we could find that One, we would probably not listen to him.

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