Fun with Surveillance

April 1, 2010 — Leave a comment

Does new program point toward loss of “privateness”?

The issue of intrusive government surveillance, particularly in the form of security cameras in public places, is one of increasing concern to privacy advocates. However, according to some sociologists and technology watchers, self-surveillance-or people recording and then publicizing themselves is having a much larger effect on society.

The Web site YouTube, which allows people to post video of themselves online for public consumption, now receives 65,000 video uploads daily. Performance groups like the New York-based Surveillance Camera Players are constantly devising ways to turn surveillance culture into art. Now, a new videocapture system developed in the United Kingdom will allow people to record themselves using surveillance cameras. The program, dubbed “Magic Moments,” will debut at the Alton Towers amusement park in Staffordshire, England, April 2007.

Visitors to Alton Towers who purchase the service will receive an RFID (radio frequency identification) band to wear around their wrist, “marking” them to the park-wide video-capture system. As you go about your day at the park, footage of you enjoying rides, eating hot dogs, peeling gum off of the bottom of your shoe, and so on is routed, catalogued, and digitally stored. When you’re ready to leave, you signal a computer to begin assembling the personalized footage, which is then transferred to a 30-minute DVD, available for purchase.

“In addition to using Sony video cameras to capture the guest’s experience on the ride, the cameras can also be utilized to provide additional security protection in the event of park break-ins or acts of vandalism,” says Al Page, chief executive officer for YourDay Video Technologies.

The notion of putting oneself under video surveillance may sound odd (if not demonstrably vain), but according to privacy experts such as Amitai Etzioni, author of The Limits of Privacy (Basic Books, 1999), there exists a growing trend in putting oneself on display.

“There is definitely a trend under way,” sys Etzioni. “I wouldn’t call it a move away from privacy so much as away from privateness. Even privacy advocates would agree that if you want to give up your privacy for any specific purpose, that’s certainly your privilege, and people do it all the time. Privateness is different. The voluntary loss of privateness is definitely on the rise. People have become very willing to disclose things for a number of reasons-for 15 minutes’ fame on television, for convenience, for coupons and special marketing incentives, and so on. Keep in mind, in many instances, there are benefits to giving away information about yourself.”

Andy Davies of the Tussauds Group (which runs Alton Towers) notes that customers for the “Magic Moments” DVD simply see it as a fun souvenir. “Research shows that our visitors have a positive propensity to purchase these products, providing themselves with a personalized reminder of the day they and their friends and family had at Alton Towers. The system proposed will allow guests to relive their unique day time and time again through personalized digital video footage,” Davies states.

According to research firms such as In-Stat, the number of RFID tags is steadily increasing. More than 1 billion tags were manufactured in 2005. By 2010, that number may rise to 33 billion annually. Etzioni sees that technology spreading to other uses in the years ahead. “RFID tags are popular now among clothing retailers for the obvious reason that they keep people from stealing clothes. I wouldn’t be surprised if parents start using similar technology in the future to keep track of their children so they don’t get lost,” he remarks.

Surveillance camera technology is also on the rise. According to the Wall Street Journal, London’s surveillance network has grown to more than 500,000 cameras. The average Londoner can now expect to be filmed 300 times in a single day. Large cities such as Chicago, which boasts more than 2,000 cameras, and New York with 2,397 in Manhattan alone, are planning to pump up their camera systems as well.

An increasing amount of this surveillance, particularly camera footage, is going to be stored on publicly accessible databases. For example, Texas Governor Rick Perry recently announced a $5 million plan to allow citizens to “remotely patrol” the U.S.-Mexico border from their homes, following the lead of a similar crime-watch program in Detroit.

The ready availability of streaming video and camera equipment, coupled with a rise in tracking technologies such as RFID or even cell phones, points toward a future where much of what you do, or where you go, is observable to anyone. Of greater significance is what we choose to watch with our newfound powers of perception. Increasingly, the answer is, ourselves.

-Patrick Tucker

Source: Venue Solutions, Suite 38, Pinewood Studies, Iver Health, Buckinghamshire, SLO 0NH, United Kingdom. Telephone +44 1753-785621; Web site

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, November-December 2006.


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