I have been pondering the security technology encroachments into public life, particularly regarding CCTV monitoring. There was a time, it seems now very long ago, that the UK was awash in CCTV. Hundreds of millions of dollars, and over four million (and counting) CCTV cameras later, the UK is the most surveilled society on earth.
We were assured that would never happen in the US, or other developed countries. Violate our civil rights? No way cried the libertarian and democratic pundits in unison.
Still, if you have nothing to hide…
Today, London and Beijing have over 400,000 CCTV each (proving politics is no guarantee either way). In the US there are over 30 million CCTV cameras, mostly in private hands. But there are now CCTV on streets in every major US city (Houston and Chicago lead the way with over 14,000 in Chicago alone) and public support is growing.
APPLAUDING OR BOOING?
On one hand, we applaud when police apprehend the Boston terrorists due in large measure to public CCTV. We also later watched those same terrorists as they planted and exploded the devices - prevention was not a result of those cameras.
I always applaud traffic intersection CCTV to cut car crashes, especially in my city where drivers spend more time in narcissistic self-obsession beating the red light rather than watching where they are going.
THE NEW REALITY
Recently I’ve been reviewing the latest in CCTV analytics, intelligent tracking and real-time scene analysis - CCTV on steroids. The thing is no longer motion detection or auto tracking (so old school). The latest is intelligent video analytics, a major evolution from facial recognition software in yesteryear. Video analytics is made possible by exponential increases in processing power and so-called ‘intelligent’ algorithms.
And now it is part of security and public safety, watching for suspicious movements, packages, behaviors. Watching you! How does the computer know what to look for? It uses algorithms based on past behavior. In future, it may use artificial intelligence to learn on its own. And that is where things get interesting.
Wired magazine puts it this way:
“voice, image, and motion recognition will transform human-computer interfaces into a seamless interaction between the user and all the computing devices in that person’s life.”
A few years ago I blogged about economic theorist Jeremy Rifkin, his forecasts, the Internet of Things and his predictions for disruptive technologies. It seems he was right. Should we be worried?
- Gregory Saville
I just finished reading the 2004 book, Christian Parenti's The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America from Slavery to the War on Terror. It shows how public surveillance started with a trickle and turned into a torrent. While generally well-written, he lapses into some obtuse theory and heavy-handed politics. Still, the message is worth the torment.
Parenti starts by echoing a common sentiment: "what harm is caused by the proliferation of everyday surveillance?" He ends by concluding: "There are risks in social anonymity, but the risks of an omniscient and omnipotent state and corporate power are far worse."
The story travels the fascinating, historical journey of surveillance: metal slave tags during the antebellum years, the birth of the mug shot, biometrics and face-recognition technology, DNA fingerprinting, invasive Internet cookies and so forth.
I was especially fascinated by the sections on CCTV. TV's NCIS will have us believe Big Brother can see all. Parenti's research suggests there is a reality gap the size of the Grand Canyon when it comes to the effectiveness of existing CCTV technology. Still, it proliferates. Over 30% of American high schools have CCTV. Like a growing number of other cities, Washington DC Police use cameras for surveillance of public streets.
Then there is the UK! I've reported in previous blogs about millions of CCTV in British cities, London's Ring of Steel, and the role of CCTV in the crime triangle.
Parenti claims those millions of cameras scanning for decades haven't caught a single terrorist and are still a threat to civil liberties. Findings like this make Soft Cage a worthy read.
Conceptually, Parenti draws on the unintelligible, circular theories of French historian Michael Foucault.
One painful sample: the fetishism of home security, while clearly being about actual security and target-hardening, is also a cargo cult of individual defense against social disintegration of the sort described by Katz [where] imaginary, or magical, forms of agency are acted out in the face of massive and nebulous threats.
Apparently Parenti has never been victim of a home invasion or burglary.
He also makes some fundamental errors such as misidentifying Oscar Newman as a promoter of target hardening and completely missing the entire crime prevention through environmental design movement. It would seem fiscal cost cutting at Soft Cage publisher Basic Books ran too deep in their editing and fact-checking departments.
The book could also use updating. I'm thinking of Joseph Morales and his presentation Not Quite Amish at last year's ICA CPTED conference. Joseph described how his community organization democratized public CCTV and became an effective crime prevention tool.
Overall, Soft Cage is worth the read. Surveillance has its place. We just have to make sure we choose the right place. Books like this help us choose.