Hidden cameras. I can’t stop thinking about them.

It all started a few months ago when I joined a delegation of mayors and their staff to a site visit of New York Police Department’s Real Time Crime Center. We were told of the center’s ability to tap into any of the police department’s 3,000 streaming cameras at a moment’s notice. They can go back in time, pinpointing the exact moment an alleged crime took place and extracting images of the perpetrators face. If only the side profile of the face is available, they use software to instantly construct a model of the individual’s face as if (s)he were staring straight into the camera. Next, they take the reconstructed image and perform a facial recognition search that pulls on their own database of photos in addition to publicly available photos on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks. If a match — or a number of matches — is made, then the center uses its social relationship mapping software to determine if there is a probable link between the person who committed the crime and the individual identified in the photograph.

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NYPD’s Real Time Crime Center

“None of this is treated as evidence of a crime,” we are assured. “Rather we’re just trying to uncover information that can assist our officers in their investigation.” The presentation walked us through two cases where the above steps were used to apprehend a criminal. I can’t say I was really surprised.

What did surprise me, what really blew my mind, was the off-handed mention that, in addition to NYPD’s own 3,000 cameras, they also had access to 23,000 streaming cameras placed in residential buildings by the private security firm, SecureWatch24. I immediately searched for the company and its relationship with NYPD, but nothing had been published. Shortly after this comment was made, a tall woman introducing herself as the Real Time Crime Center’s counsel entered the room and took all questions related NYPD’s access to SecureWatch24’s 23,000 cameras. She said that all the cameras had signs declaring that footage could be made available to the NYPD, though no one in our delegation had ever seen such a sign. She also said that the police department only requested access when a crime was reported, though she wouldn’t offer any details about oversight mechanisms in place to protect New Yorkers’ civil liberties.

I mentioned NYPD’s access to SecureWatch24’s 23,000 cameras on Twitter. It attracted more retweets and responses than anything else I’ve tweeted. Most of the responses criticized the increasing surveillance in New York City, but more than a handful replied that they’d be grateful for the NYPD’s access to the footage if they were a victim of a crime. Carlton Purvis, an investigative reporter at MuckRock News filed an FOI request for access to the agreement between NYPD and SecureWatch24, but it was denied within three days.

Revenge Porn

The next morning I was walking through Chelsea Market with an elevated awareness of the almost-hidden cameras placed throughout the building. They were accompanied by no signs, no disclosure. Where did all those live feeds go? Who had access to them? Why were they watching?

I recalled discovering one afternoon in my office that I could view dozens of real-time cameras in smog inspection centers across Mexico. Allegedly the presence of the cameras would discourage employees from demanding bribes for smog check certificates, a practice common throughout the country. I spent the next 15 minutes watching the inspectors walk around, do their work and scratch themselves before I got back to work.

I had come to Chelsea Market to grab a cup of coffee and read the New York Times before my meeting at Google’s massive building across the street. The day’s paper reported on the rise of revenge porn in which individuals post naked, erotic photos of their exes in order to exact some revenge. Once those photos are posted online, the victim’s identity is forever associated with the photographs. Holly Jacobs, founder of the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, changed her name after her ex-boyfriend posted intimate photos of her online. Soon enough, though, the same photos were linked to her new name. Once facial recognition search engines like pictrieve and Viewdle become more pervasive, it will become all but impossible to disassociate your identify with a photograph — past or present — that is posted online.

Think about that. Any photo of you ever taken, if made available online, can be forever associated with your name when anyone searches for it. This includes photographs of you that you don’t even know exist. Consider this one, taken by a roaming Google Street View car:

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I walked across the street to Google’s New York office building, which they purchased in 2010 for some $1.9 billion. Google Maps didn’t just point me to the front door; I knew the layout of the entire fourth floor where I had my meeting. Google says they are mapping the insides of buildings so that users can find the fastest path from kitchen gadgets to living room accessories at Ikea. But already companies like Nordstroms are using wi-fi routers to triangulate the phones of their customers to track where they spend the most time inside their stores.

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The fourth floor of Google’s New York building, as seen from my iPhone

I got off the elevator on the fourth floor and all appeared as was expected. It doesn’t seem improbable that within a couple years we will be able to click on a camera icon to see live streaming video of every room that appears on the map. In fact, we already have a map of live web cams along the eastern seaboard. And my good friend Felipe Heusser is working with Jeff Warren to develop Peepol.tv, which aims to make all streaming video (U-Stream, Tweet-Caster, YouTube Live) more accessible.

SeeChange

A few days later I was reading Dave Eggers’ latest book, The Circle, while on a flight to Rio de Janeiro to attend the Global Investigative Journalism Conference. Joe Nocera, writing in the New York Times, is spot on: The Circle will become — or should become — the 1984 of our generation.

The book describes a dystopian future in which an Internet monopoly — modeled on Google after it has acquired Facebook and Twitter — controls our every digital action. The company’s latest innovation, SeeChange, is a streaming webcam the size of a lollipop that is always on, always connected to the Internet, and forever archived. Of course this already exists today with the Narrative Clip, and will become pervasive with Google Glass.

But back to “fiction.” Here’s how one of the company’s co-founders in The Circle pitches the product to an audience of fawning fans (not unlike Steve Jobs’ launching of new Apple products):

Folks, we’re at the dawn of the Second Enlightenment … I’m talking about an era where we don’t allow the majority of human thought and action and achievement and learning to escape as if from a leaky bucket. We did that once before. It was called the Middle Ages, the Dark Ages. If not for the monks, everything the world had ever learned would have been lost. Well, we live in a similar time, when we’re losing the vast majority of what we do and see and learn. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Not with these cameras, and not with the mission of the Circle.

Soon all politicians are convinced to wear the SeeChange cameras to lifestream every hour of every day. Those politicians who refuse to wear SeeChange (to “go transparent” as it becomes known) are assumed to be hiding secrets. Eggers views a world of live streaming politicians as dystopian, but others like IFTF’s David Evan Harris have proposed similar scenarios as a way to fix our broken democracy:

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The SeeChange cameras, of course, are not unlike Google Glass, which is expected to be made available to the general public next year.

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Surveillance Cameras and Undercover Journalism

I landed in Rio de Janeiro where IBM has built its first Urban Operations Center with access to an unknown number of live surveillance cameras placed throughout the city. Activists have repeatedly used Brazil’s new freedom of information law to access the contract between IBM and the government of Rio de Janeiro, but their requests have been denied. It is not known whether IBM also has access to the surveillance cameras.

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In Rio de Janeiro, I was also reminded of the upside of hidden cameras. At the Global Investigative Journalism I attended a panel on undercover journalism, which included an intriguing presentation by Brazilian undercover reporter Eduardo Faustini who posed as a procurement official in a public hospital for three months in order to record evidence of fraud by corporate suppliers to the hospital. There are hundreds of other undercover investigations that have led to public outcry and, at times, real accountability. Many are listed on NYU’s comprehensive database of “Deception for Journalism’s Sake.”

Another example of hidden camera surveillance for a good cause is Meu Rio’s campaign to save the Friedenreich school from demolition to make room for Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic facilities. The group of young activists set up a streaming web cam across the street from the school and depended on its network of volunteers to watch the live feed to ensure that the school wasn’t demolished when “no one was watching.”

Several friends have told me that they feel safer walking in neighborhoods with CCTV police cameras. The New York Police Department found a 36% drop in crime in public housing projects with CCTV cameras compared to those without.

From Rodney King to Cairo, citizens have used their cell phone cameras to document police brutality and official corruption across the world, as I documented in my essay on “The New Omnipresence.”

Accountability and Freedom

So why should we care about our privacy from the increasingly pervasive semi-public cameras that stream and record our movements everyday? Because “privacy is a means to democracy, not an end in itself,” as Evgeny Morozov has observed, citing Spiros Simitis.

… Privacy is not an end in itself. It’s a means of achieving a certain ideal of democratic politics, where citizens are trusted to be more than just self-contented suppliers of information to all-seeing and all-optimizing technocrats. “Where privacy is dismantled,” warned Simitis, “both the chance for personal assessment of the political process and the opportunity to develop and maintain a particular style of life fade.”

When we are constantly recorded, we begin to act differently. Pull out a video camera at any social gathering and all authenticity fades away. This is precisely what happens to Mae, the protagonist of the Dave Eggers novel, The Circle, when she begins to livestream her every moment to thousands of online followers who provide continuous online commentary about her life. A letter from her ex-boyfriend — who is increasingly critical of Mae and her employer — affords Eggers the opportunity to editorialize:

It’s one thing to want to measure yourself, Mae— you and your bracelets. I can accept you and yours tracking your own movements, recording everything you do, collecting data on yourself in the interest of  …   Well, whatever it is you’re trying to do. But it’s not enough, is it? You don’t want just your data, you need mine. You’re not complete without it. It’s a sickness.

I expect this is some second great schism, where two humanities will live, apart but parallel. There will be those who live under the surveillance dome you’re helping to create, and those who live, or try to live, apart from it.

I doubt that we’re on the cusp of a great schism between the surveilled and those that forsake the convenience of networked technologies in the pursuit of freedom. I do, however, agree with Richard Stallman that we need to define ” the maximum tolerable level of surveillance, beyond which a government becomes oppressive.” Stallman, who concedes that “some surveillance is necessary,” prescribes a mix of technology and policy fixes to protect democracy from surveillance. They are all worthy of consideration.

It took Americans 40 years following the Civil War to understand that industrial monopolies were a threat to democracy. It then took them another twenty years to pass legislation during the Progressive Era to protect democracy from corporate lobbying and abusive monopolies.

We are only now beginning to understand how surveillance threatens democracy. The road to reform will be long and arduous.

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