Candid cameras: Stately statements about the state of the surveillance state

Technology Decoded IMAGEBy Paolo Chlebecek

Look up! To your left. No, your other left. Do you see it? The camera there. Well, it sees you. The prevalence and pervasiveness of digital cameras lately is astonishing. What can you do to mitigate this current issue, or how can we avoid cameras or Closed Circuit TV (aka CCTV) altogether?

I try to focus on positive things and this subject need not be a negative one. Even though many feel any and all surveillance or spying is bad, we don’t always appreciate what cameras can do for us.

Electronic video surveillance has been with us longer than computers. The first CCTV system was installed by Siemens in Germany in 1942 for observing the launch of V-2 rockets. Today it’s estimated that 30 million surveillance cameras are deployed in the United States alone. They produce over 4 billion hours of footage a week. This rate grows daily. So the answer to our first question about how to mitigate or avoid cameras is clear. You can’t. To quote Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

Is that a problem? Maybe; maybe not. New apps like “Periscope” from Twitter make our lives even less private than before. “Periscope” allows you to post unedited raw video from any smartphone to the web for all to see live as it happens. Some say that’s cool, others not so much. While I applaud this technological achievement, it — like all advances in our modern world — must be used responsibly. Likely it won’t or can’t be. You can’t change live video or edit out some impropriety. This one’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.

But have cameras helped us? In some respects, it seems so. A 2009 analysis by Northeastern University and the University of Cambridge examined 44 different studies that collectively surveyed areas from the United Kingdom to U.S. cities such as Cincinnati and New York City. Surveillance systems appeared most effective in parking lots, where their use resulted in a 51 percent decrease in crime; public transportation areas saw a 23 percent decrease in crimes; systems in public settings were the least effective, with just a 7 percent decrease in crimes overall. When sorted by country, however, systems in the United Kingdom accounted for the majority of the decrease; the drop in other areas was insignificant.

As they say, “Video doesn’t lie.” It’s often admissible in court and can have a tremendous effect on juries. Now, with analytics — or, if you want to get technical, the detection and determination of temporal events not based on a single image — makes these billions of hours of recording even more relevant than ever before.

Keep in mind that there are probably even more cameras and digital surveillance systems keeping track of you with neither your knowledge nor consent. You’re taped in traffic, on modes of transportation, in shops, at schools, and in correctional facilities. It’s no wonder that the average American is caught on camera more than 75 times a day.

As I asserted in last month’s column, we depend ever so much on our technology. Our ability to access, secure, and find what we want when we want it is really, really important. It can even help piece together tragedies, like the Washington Navy Yard shooting by Aaron Alexis in 2013, which was captured on CCTV. While cameras certainly didn’t prevent the crime, they gave clear, undeniable evidence of what happened an anchored a timeline of the event.

So, where do we go from here? Well, wherever we go, you can be sure something will be recording our moves for all to see.


Paolo Chlebecek is founder and owner of PaoloTek, which he started in 2003. He loves dogs of all sorts and oddly finds himself driving around town between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. every weekday. Wave hi when you see him or contact him at Paolo@PaoloTek.Com.

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