Don’t Look Now. You’re Being Watched

July/Aug 2010

They’re everywhere: on the ATM, in the elevator, in every store, at the intersection, at your favorite beach, on the Google StreetView car, and on your laptop. If you’re in public, you’re on camera. If you’re in private, you might be, too.

Video surveillance has become pervasive, with surprisingly little fanfare or objection. In dense urban areas, it can be hard to find a public place where you are not on camera. Retail stores and casinos have used closed-circuit video surveillance for decades to deter and catch shoplifters and cheaters. Malls, sporting venues, transportation terminals and vehicles, and corporate and college campuses are almost universally covered by live video surveillance, as are apartment buildings, condominiums, and the entries to gated communities. It used to be a legal requirement, or at least an expected courtesy, to inform people that they were being videotaped. But those “Smile, You’re on Camera” signs have mostly disappeared, and where they are still in place, then seem somehow … quaint.

These video systems were purpose-built to serve a commercial or community security need, but the marketers aren’t far behind. An increasing number of outdoor signs watch the people who come near, from highway billboards to those digital signs popping up in the airport and Wal-Mart. These signs use onboard cameras to not only count passersby, but also to measure how long people look at the sign, and in some cases, recognize their gender and estimate their age.

Add in all of the non-specific video streams such as Internet Webcams showing live traffic, surf conditions, and the weather, and then pile on the output of “civilian journalists” who capture and upload mobile videos ranging from a police take-down to a music festival, and it’s possible that every trip we take out of our home, office, or hotel is covered by one or more video streams, some of them running live and unfiltered on the Internet.

What’s being done with these videos? Mostly, nothing: unless there is an incident, the images are discarded. Some live streams are actively monitored, such as closed-circuit cameras at self-serve gas stations and corporate security cameras (though the “desk” guard may not actually be watching). Security and law enforcement personnel watch people entering major events, such as presidential inaugurations and the Superbowl, using realtime video and facial recognition software to identify people who represent potential security threats. Traffic intersections and police cruisers have video cameras that read license plates, both to catch red-light violators and identify cars which are stolen or have expired tags.

Video isn’t limited to public environments. It’s a growing presence in our homes, too. Nanny cams became standard gear for working parents in the 1990s, and now there are Webcams that activate automatically based on events within the home, such as Johnny opening the front door when he comes in from school. Web interfaces make these videos easy to view or delete from anywhere.

Non-security home video is also on the rise: Skype, the international VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) provider, announced in January that LG and Panasonic will embed Skype in their Internet-capable televisions, allowing HD video calling from the living room couch without a computer. Even more interesting, Microsoft’s controller-less “Natal” technology will hit retail shelves in time for Christmas. Natal uses a video camera mounted on the wall above the TV to capture images of 48 points in 3D on each player’s body, and converts their movements into game play. No more swinging a small, rectangular object strapped to your wrist and pretending it’s a golf club or fishing pole. Natal will allows gamers to use natural gestures, eliminating the controller altogether.

What are the implications to us, as individuals and a society, when we are constantly under surveillance? The plus side includes improved personal security and convenience. The downside is another threat to our personal privacy. Live Internet video streams can be anywhere, meaning that anyone can see where you go and what you do, including former lovers, your boss, your spouse, and law enforcement. Our privacy is increasingly limited, if it still exists at all. Pervasive video kicks that concern up a notch, even though we know that most of the video is never watched or stored.

Our gnawing discomfort with video surveillance is reinforced by occasional scandals, such as the recent case in Pennsylvania in which the Webcams on school-issued laptops were used to spy on students in their homes. This case highlights two risks: One, that unscrupulous individuals may misuse video intended for helpful purposes, and two, that videos may be misinterpreted by people who have no sense of what actually happened at the location where the video was taped.

Since there is little any of us can do to limit our “appearances” on live video streams, I’ve decided to start dressing better and get a new haircut. In the words of the waning silent film star Norma Desmond, “Alright Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

Even with her new trench coat, fedora, and dark glasses, Laurie Lamberth can still sometimes be spotted in her home town of Long Beach, Calif. Contact Laurie or learn about her strategic business development and marketing consultancy at www.laurielamberth.com

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By | 2015-06-23T17:27:28+00:00 6/30/2010|

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