Are Electronic Eyes Watching You?

Courtesty Flickr/BrianBoulos

In an earlier post, I observed that the current explosion of cheap data storage would allow people to record photos and videos without limit.  Anyone with a camera will soon be able to archive every moment of their lives.  What would such continuous recording mean for those of us caught in the footage, willingly or otherwise?

As it turns out, this is not entirely a hypothetical question.  The sheer ubiquity of digital recording devices means you’re on someone’s camera more often than you think.  Consider the graphic posted here.  Here are a few points that jump out:

  • Smartphone camera sales will hit a billion per year by 2016…
  • … while YouTube is adding 24 hours of video every minute.
  • New York City has 6 times as many surveillance cameras as they did in 1998…
  • …while archived surveillance footage will grow 50% by 2013.

This may be, but I still feel the Big Brother-style fears expressed in the chart are overblown, for two reasons.

  1. Cameras aren’t really everywhere.  The vast majority of surveillance cameras seem to be located in dense, highly public locations where my actions could typically be observed by hundreds of people anyway, even without the cameras.  As for personal cameras, I suppose someone could be hiding one in my hotel room, or surreptitiously recording me on the subway… but I have no reason to think this is true.
  2. The footage isn’t integrated in any way.  I might be caught in security footage from the London underground, moments later in the background of a busker’s performance video, and then in the archives of a bank’s ATM camera.  But without any way to connect them to each other, or to my real-life persona, wouldn’t I be just another face in the crowd?

This isn’t to say it couldn’t happen.  If city governments and private security firms decided to pool all their footage together and somehow track specific people, I’d have a big problem with that.  Likewise, what if people who know you in real life are able to view (or record!) extensive, unauthorized footage of you?  As I allude to in the post linked above, that would constitute a huge invasion of privacy.

So our Big Brother nightmare could still come true, but I’m not losing any sleep over it yet.   What do you think?  Will the rise of cheap recording lead to the disappearance of privacy?  Is this just future-phobic alarmism?

2 thoughts on “Are Electronic Eyes Watching You?

  1. I suspect that there might be sophisticated software to link bio-metric images from video cameras with other data sources such as credit card uses, either already in use or nearly so. Now perhaps being employed to track people with certain profiles deemed potential “terrorists”. or “enemies of the state.” I think that was behind the far reaching powers of government to track and retain personal data that were made legal by the Patriot Act. Also behind the arguments that there is no constitutional right to privacy. I think we must be vigilant to monitor expanding uses of technology to monitor us.

    • Perhaps I was naive in assuming that surveillance methods couldn’t be integrated with each other. It’d be even more disturbing if the images could be connected with credit cards or other data, as you suggest. I’m going to dig into this a bit further, and will report back in a later post.

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