Friday, May 7, 2010

Cameras everywhere

In the late 90s I worked in central London, near the Royal Courts of Justice. One day I looked up to see how many surveillance cameras I could count. It was at least a dozen, possibly two dozen.

Not all of them were safeguarding the Courts. They were stuck all over the place, on both public buildings and private. The intent was clearly not just to keep an eye on things, but also to make it abundantly clear that someone was doing so. Likewise in Oxford street, where the stated aim was to deter shoplifters and pickpockets (but not, so it seemed, shell games and sellers of counterfeit watches).

Surveillance cameras in major cities are not unusual, nor were they then, I'm sure, but the density of bristling, in-your-face obvious cameras seemed particularly high to me.

Fast forward back to the present and it seems like the rest of the world is catching up. One pattern I've noticed, in two different parts of the US, is a city adopting red light cameras at selected intersections (as far as I can tell), but sticking cameras on top of pretty much any piece of public infrastructure that will hold one.

As far as I can tell, most of the cameras are just webcams. The actual red-light cameras tend to be conspicuously big boxy affairs that flash a bright light when they nail someone. But for all a paranoid new driver in the area knows, they could be, and for that matter it doesn't seem a great feat of engineering to turn an ordinary webcam setup into a red-light camera.

Come to think of it, you wouldn't necessarily need any sophisticated software or full-time employees to monitor them. Just crowdsource it. Proud citizens of Anytown: Do you really want that new recreation center? Just stream the following URLs and click the "You're busted" button when you spot a transgression. Remember, every illegal left turn you spot brings us $X closer ...

Yikes. I should just stop typing now.

How did we get here, anyway? Is Big Brother taking over? Well, not exactly. It looks more like a combination of two pretty mundane factors:
  • People want to see what's going on.
  • Digital cameras and web connections are cheap and getting cheaper.
The limit is no longer technical, but what people will put up with. Interesting times, indeed.

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