The Domestication of Surveillance: We Are the Watchers
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.
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?
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.