Saturday, December 11, 2010

Private Eyes

A side effect of the communications revolution – one missed by Marshall McLuhan – is the rise of the surveillance society. One may argue it was not entirely unanticipated; it is a central element of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), after all. However, Orwell conceived of video surveillance as an extension of secret police tactics already in use in the 40s – as an enhancement of the security state. That’s not quite the way it turned out.

To be sure, there are plenty of police and security applications of the technology. If you offer an alibi that, for example, you were driving to Manhattan at the time a crime occurred in Easton, police can check your EZ Pass statement and video footage from inside the Lincoln Tunnel to check your story. Yet, this is not quite the same thing as state authorities keeping a watchful eye on the masses. For the most part, we the people spy on each other. Surveillance isn’t centralized, but for that reason it is all the more pervasive. The security firm ADT, for example, currently runs a TV ad which depicts a parent at work using his laptop to check the camera in his home foyer; he smiles as he watches his teen daughter enter the front door after school. RFID tags originally intended to track pets are now marketed to track kids. Using a cell phone provides your GPS co-ordinates to the phone company. Scarcely a speck of ground is uncovered by the satellite imagery of (often accompanied by ground-level pics). A growing number of real time cameras mounted on buildings and lampposts are publically accessible on the net (a high angle view of Times Square: ), and more than once such images have been used to catch a philandering spouse. Even a minor event such as a spat between high schoolers is likely to be captured by someone’s cell phone camera and posted on Facebook. With very little more integration of these technologies, anyone who cares to do so will be able to track another individual’s movements 24/7. The remarkable thing, at least to many of my generation, is how little concern all this seems to generate, especially among the young who have grown up with it.

To the extent electronic eyes were meant to deter crime, they haven’t worked. There are so many cameras everywhere that watchers simply can’t monitor them all. A mugging directly in front of a street-cam most likely will go unnoticed. Drug deals and other street crimes are funneled into blind spots or completed inside cars where the exchanges can’t be recorded clearly. Working the night shift alone in a convenience store is no safer than it was 40 years ago. The cameras do help solve crimes after the fact, though, which is reason enough to expect their coverage to go on expanding.

This is so different from my childhood when – with no cell phone or beeper – I played either alone or with friends (often biking to the school playground or local shopping center) with no “supervision” or expectation of any. Today, I suppose this would be considered a case of negligent parenting, but at the time it was the norm; we made fun of kids whose parents hovered over them more than this. Well into my adulthood there was a simple assumption of privacy pretty much everywhere. It still catches me a little off guard when I notice a camera pointed my way when grocery-shopping or just strolling down a sidewalk.

This is one of those “you can’t put the genie back in the bottle” developments that does little good to bemoan. It is, however, a change significant enough to deserve more comment than the shrug it usually gets. An expectation of the lack of privacy is part of the shape of the modern world. We have met Big Brother, and we are he.

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