Watch out, Big Brother—Little Brother’s watching 'you'

Rob Walker

By Rob Walker

Anybody keeping an eye on the rise of surveillance culture had plenty to scrutinize this weekend. In The New York Times, Randall Stross reported on the police department in Rialto, Calif., experimenting with new wearable video cameras (reminiscent of Google Glass, actually) meant to be activated any time an officer interacts with civilians. It’s a pilot program, but the results so far “are striking,” Stross writes, noting declines in how frequently officers “used force” as well as in the number of complaints filed against the department.

Elsewhere in the same edition of the paper, we learn about animal rights activists who have made covert videos suggesting abuses and regulatory violations at factory farms, resulting in both legal action and lost business for the alleged offenders. As a result, the Times says, various state legislatures, apparently prodded by farm lobbyists, are drafting laws that would make such videos illegal, or would limit who can see them.

And, of course, a dominant story everywhere over the weekend was the ongoing fallout from videos showing now-fired Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice shoving and cursing out players during practice.

The convergence of stories raises a slew of issues that tend to get glossed over when people shruggingly note that cameras seem to be everywhere nowadays. While the Rialto experiment sounds Big Brother-ish, as Stross’ story notes, it’s just as much a reaction to Little Brother: The chief there says he pointed out to his officers that many civilians are toting video equipment in the form of smartphones so, “instead of relying on somebody else’s partial picture of what occurred, why not have your own?”

In other words, this isn’t the imposition of a top-down surveillance state; it’s a response to a bottom-up surveillance state.

Meanwhile, farms (factory or otherwise) are private businesses that presumably have every right to make rules that prevent employees (undercover activists or otherwise) from making secret videos on their properties. And yet, the examples in the Times story sound like surveillance used to advance the public good—and it does seem like many elements of our food supply chain remain particularly opaque. The most perplexing issue then, is raised by potential legislation that would “require such videos to be given to the authorities almost immediately,” as activists contend that it’s precisely the ability to publicize their findings, with video evidence, that assures authorities will act. That is: It’s not just what gets taped—it’s who sees it.

Which brings us to Rice. As we’ve now learned, some of his bosses actually saw the controversial footage months ago, but Rutgers’ president claims that he (weirdly) didn’t get around to watching it until recently, when it became clear that ESPN was about to broadcast it. Though he says he had read a report detailing the same behavior that the tape shows, actually seeing it convinced him instantly that Rice had to be sacked. One assumes that knowing the entire country was about to see it had some role in his epiphany.

But the really curious part of the Rice story is that Rice must have known his behavior was being documented: Those quick, low-light reels saturating the airwaves lately are culled from hundreds of hours of practice footage. Possibly he just assumed no one outside of Rutgers’ basketball program would ever have occasion to see the results. Possibly he didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. Or, it’s possible this particular surveillance practice was so routine he just stopped thinking about it.

These aren’t new issues, per se: Debates about the future implications of super-pervasive, widely dispersed video technology have gone on for years, without much in the way of coherent results. But it’s starting to look like the time for debate about the future is over, and the implications and fallout are already unfolding—before our very eyes.