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The Domestication of Surveillance: We Are the Watchers

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
Yahoo Tech
June 3, 2014

The Domestication of Surveillance: We Are the Watchers

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
Yahoo Tech
June 3, 2014

Viewed from one angle, the security camera is one of the most contentious technological objects of our time, a target of skepticism and scorn, and a symbol of 1984-style snooping by authorities.

But that doesn’t capture the whole picture. Even as we fret about Big Brother, many of us have frankly embraced surveillance technologies. We have advocated cameras as an element of policing and securing public and commercial space.

Even more intriguing, however, is how surveillance has become a routine element in our domestic space.

Read more: 11 Art and Design Projects That Will Change the Way You Look at Security Cameras

Consider Google’s reported interest in Dropcam, the $150 to $200 WiFi camera that streams what it captures to a cloud-based storage system. It is specifically marketed to homeowners.

Primarily discussed as a security device, Dropcam can be used in a variety of ways, as my colleague Dan Tynan recently described, from a sort of life-logging tool to yet another method to monitor one’s children.

The rumored Google interest apparently comes from its recently acquired Nest division, the maker of advanced, smartphone-enabled thermostats and smoke detectors. Google wants to collect data from our very homes. As we learned from its most recent developers conference, that’s a market Apple is targeting, too.

How did this happen? How did security cameras go from tools of the state to pop gadgetry? And does this mean that, ultimately, we’ve not just accepted video surveillance, but want it?

Looking back
The story goes back further than you think. David Murakami Wood, the Canada research chair in surveillance studies at Queen’s University in Ontario, pointed me to what is in effect a surveillance film from 1935: Made in Britain, it was used to prosecute the subjects (who were filmed from above, without their knowledge) of street gambling.

You can see the surviving footage here.

Later came video that could be monitored remotely via closed circuit, and then technology that allowed massive archives of digital video to be created, stored, and then viewed only when needed. Every technical improvement was followed by greater use from police departments and the like, as Murakami Wood (and colleagues Clive Norris and Mike McCahill) spell out in this comprehensive overview published in the journal Surveillance & Society.

But there are some surprising wrinkles. Businesses adopted surveillance cameras as far back as the 1950s and 1960s. Cameras appeared in spaces that “looked public, but are really private,” Murakami Wood told me.

Shopping centers, malls, theme parks, and similar venues sought to project an air of safety. “That’s what got people used to this idea,” he said. Cameras became part of the commercial urban environment.

Terrorist attacks — dating back at least to mid-1980s Irish Republican Army bombings in England — inspired more governmental use of cameras. Most recently, the Boston Marathon bombing’s wake included full-throated cries for a more cammed-up world, and expanded programs in a number of American cities.

Murakami Wood points out that despite all this, the actual evidence that cameras play a major role in solving, or even deterring, crime, ranges from thin to debatable. Nevertheless, the apparent sense of security they seem to provide ended up carrying over from businesses and public spaces into private homes.

Who’s watching?
Wealthier consumers have used home security cameras for decades; smaller, cheaper devices predictably democratized their uptake. But the modern and surprising turning point in the domestication of surveillance came from a different direction, said Josh Daniels, president of VideoSurveillance.com, an online retailer and designer of custom surveillance systems for business.

First, around 1992, a category of device that came to be called the “nanny cam” emerged: Diminutive cameras could be hidden within objects inside a home. (These generally record video only, to sidestep wiretap-related laws that bar surreptitious capture of audio communication.) You might consider this an extension of the baby-monitor idea, and really these could be used for any purpose. But often, Daniels told me, it was about “spying on the nanny.”

Should you hide a nanny cam?

Incriminating nanny footage was a media staple for a while, and probably helped culturally normalize the idea of in-home footage as an extension of the video camera as theoretical protector. A few years later, Internet protocol (or IP) cams arrived, kicking off a whole new era of domestic documentation — and even broadcast — tethered to the computer. A wireless device like the Dropcam makes that same notion more convenient and flexible.

“Public perception is changing over time,” Daniels said, as surveillance technology “pervades our lives.”

VideoSurveillance.com’s “CommunityCam” map is a crowdsourced rundown of camera locations in multiple cities, meant to help people find “safer, monitored” areas and routes.

As surveillance equipment has become more familiar in public, its potential benefits have become increasingly available, and evidently appealing. Daniels’ firm targets small and medium-sized businesses that are increasingly interested in more than just security. They hope to learn about store-layout efficiency, customer movement patterns, and more.

Something similar, then, may be happening on the home front: Dropcam may have a security selling point, but maybe it can also capture priceless family moments, or just document exactly how it is that the cat is getting on top of the refrigerator.

TMI
Does this make you uneasy? Even if we accept the idea of giving up an expectation of privacy in public, can’t we at least expect some version of privacy in a friend’s living room?

Maybe the answer depends on whether we’re in the mind-set of the watcher or the potentially watched.

“It’s about control,” Jen King of UC Berkeley’s School of Information told me. She studies all manner of information science and its relation to surveillance in various contexts.

For instance, it’s not always clear who’s doing the surveilling via public cameras, or indeed if they really work at all. If we trust the idea — and despite the iffy evidence, we increasingly do — that cameras protect us, maybe we don’t mind. But if we are the ones surveilling, well, we certainly trust ourselves!

And as King observed, the easier it gets to be the surveillor, the more of us will probably try it out. “I think,” she says, “we’re just at the beginning.”

In other words, this is a trend we’ll all have to keep an eye on.

Write to me at rwalkeryn@yahoo.com or find me on Twitter, @notrobwalker. RSS lover? Paste this URL into your reader of choice: https://www.yahoo.com/tech/author/rob-walker/rss.