Do We Really Want to be Watched?

Outdoor cameraI noticed an article that mentioned that the Google free WiFi hotspots in New York City are equipped with cameras and are able to be used for surveillance. Google says that this function has not been activated, but it got me to thinking about public video surveillance in general.

There has been a surge in recent years in the installation of public surveillance cameras, fostered in part by the fiber networks that are being built everywhere. The sale of outdoor surveillance equipment is growing at about 7% per year. And the quality of that equipment is rapidly improving. New surveillance cameras no longer produce the grainy pictures we all think of as synonymous with security footage but are now using high definition and even 4K video technologies to drastically improve the quality of the images. Fiber bandwidth is allowing for higher frame rates and fewer gaps in the sequence of images.

The city of London led the way over a decade ago and installed cameras to saturate certain downtown neighborhoods in the city. After having had these in place for a long time the statistics show that the cameras haven’t really changed the crime rate in the watched neighborhoods. While it did change the nature of the crimes in the areas somewhat, the overall crime rate is close to what it was before the cameras.

Probably the biggest public fear about surveillance is that public cameras will be used to track where we go in public. I know I’m not nuts about the idea of a store knowing who I am as soon as I walk through the door, and I’m even more skeptical of having the government track me as I walk down city streets.

That aspect of surveillance is going to require better facial recognition technology. Currently, Facebook facial recognition is said to be able to identify people 98% of the time. Facebook is able to get such good results by limiting its search to friends and friends-of-friends of the person that posts a picture. Facebook also benefits from the pictures of people from different angles and different lighting which lets it build better profiles. The FBI’s software is said to be 85% accurate if they can limit a search to no more than 50 people for the software to consider.

There is no facial recognition software yet that is very good at identifying random people on a public street. However, everybody expects that software to be here in less than a decade through assistance from Artificial Intelligence.

Public surveillance cameras open up a number of ethical issues. The first is that it’s too tempting for law enforcement insiders to misuse surveillance information. Back in 1997 a high-ranking police officer in DC was convicted of using surveillance cameras near a gay bar for identifying patrons through license plates and then blackmailing them. The Detroit Free Press reported on cases of policemen using surveillance systems to help friends, stalk estranged spouses, or harass those with whom they had a traffic altercation.

Terrorism experts say that public surveillance cameras not only don’t deter terrorist attacks, but might instead invite them by producing images of a terrorist attack.

There are also arguments that video surveillance constitutes fourth amendment violations through unreasonable searches. The concern comes not just from having government cameras identifying you on the street, but that over time using that data to create a profile about where and when you go out, who you see, and what you do in public.

I know that a lot of US cities are considering putting in a lot more surveillance cameras as part of smart city initiatives. Tampa, near to me, has already begun the installation of an extensive outside camera network. I’m sure the city officials that do this have what they think are good reasons for watching their citizens, but our short history with the technology shows that such systems will be used for purposes different than what was intended. I, for one, am not a fan of the whole concept and I suspect most people don’t really want to be watched.