We are all paparazzi now

In an age of increasing corporate and government surveillance, publicly accessible webcams give us a chance to do some watching of our own.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Published September 25, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

On a weekday in September, the webcam trained on Heritage Square in Flagstaff, Ariz., typically gets 300 to 400 visitors from cities like Dallas; Phoenix; Burbank, Calif.; Portland, Ore.; Sacramento, Calif.; Provo, Utah; as well as from countries like Sweden, Great Britain and Germany.

Wait your turn at the site, and you can control the direction, angle and focus of the camera, temporarily taking charge of what everyone else looking at that Web page sees, too.

Zoom in on high school boys kicking a Hacky Sack around. Or, cast the remote electronic eye on a brunet woman wearing a pink shirt eating alone at an outdoor cafe. Or go cheesecake, and zero in on the back of a sweaty workman wearing only a pair of rolled-up jean shorts while standing on a ladder painting a building in the Arizona sunshine.

"The hook is people like to watch people, and they like to follow them around," says Paul Lancaster, who has had the Flagstaff webcam mounted on his business partner's Brookside Chocolate Co. store since November 2002.

With publicly accessible webcams, we can all be paparazzi now. Like what you see? Capture a snapshot of the live image with one mouse click, and e-mail it to anyone you want. In a society where all of us are constantly enduring increasing levels of surveillance -- in convenience stores, at gas stations, in front of ATMs, in parks and office buildings and street intersections -- by government and corporate interests, webcams offer a chance for us to do the watching.

Webcams, of course, are nothing new. But unlike the Jennicams of Web yore, cameras like the one in Flagstaff don't star wannabe Web celebs in their own narcissistic minidramas. They feature a cast of strangers engaging in pedestrian daily happenings in public spaces. And the numbers of such cameras in place are staggering.

Earlier in September, Carnegie Mellon University's Data Privacy Lab launched a study of publicly accessible webcams, as part of a Surveillance of Surveillances project called Camera Watch. At the beginning of the project, the researchers predicted they'd find 6,000 such cameras. But in its first few weeks, their search turned up almost 10,000, and they're still uncovering hundreds of new ones, according to Latanya Sweeney, the project's principal investigator.

Ten thousand webcams is just a drop in the bucket compared to the more than 3 million surveillance cameras deployed around the country in the name of security by businesses, local communities and even some homeowners, according to the Security Industry Association, a trade group. Life in the 21st century, increasingly, means that you are being watched. And while there have been some setbacks for the surveillance society over the last year -- jailcams have faced legal challenges, and a couple of highly publicized experiments in using computerized face-recognition systems in conjunction with video surveillance have either been abandoned or deemed failures -- there's still no question that the Panopticon tide is continuing to rise, aided by relentless technological advances.

And while wiretapping laws protect conversations in public from being recorded, your own image in public can be freely snapped, recorded and streamed and there's nothing you can do about it. So, ironically, while you can no longer be filmed and have your image streamed onto the Web if you're a female inmate in a Phoenix jail sleeping in your cell, or using the toilet, you can be recorded going about your daily business as a free citizen in the public square in Flagstaff or any other street in America.

The rising tide of surveillance, both public and private, raises some intriguing questions. Does the fact that we can increasingly do the watching ourselves, from the comfort of our computer terminals, offer an antidote to the unpleasant reality that security guards, intelligence agencies and employers are constantly watching us? Could the spread of publicly accessible webcams be a good thing, allowing society as a whole to watch the watchers, and everyone else?

There are some limits to the surveillance society. At the Madison Street Jail in Phoenix, the infamous jailcams are all dark now. No longer do images of daily life inside the Maricopa County jail -- the bookings, the standing around, the female prisoners going to the bathroom -- grace the servers of Crime.com for the world's voyeuristic entertainment.

Crime.com went bust in the dot-com meltdown, and in March 2003, 24 former prisoners sued the county sheriff who had cooked up the jailcam scheme and won a preliminary injunction against him from a federal district court.

"The toilet area and the sleeping area of any jail or prison is not a public area," says Donna Hamm, executive director of Middle Ground Prison Reform, which helped the 24 plaintiffs bring the suit. "The complaint alleged that the sheriff was exploiting pretrial detainee images for commercial use without their knowledge or permission."

The sheriff is now forbidden from putting live images of inmates on the Internet, while the case awaits trial, where the plaintiffs will seek a permanent injunction against the jailcams.

Then there's the case of the Tampa Police Department, which famously tried to use facial-recognition software to identify wanted criminals, first in crowds at the 2001 Super Bowl and then in the city's entertainment district, but has now admitted that the whole project was a failure, because the technology just didn't work well enough. The failure of a test of face-recognition technology at Boston's Logan Airport to catch 38 percent of employees posing as terrorists also has cast doubt on what protection the technology can provide, at least in the near term.

"My sense is that the facial-recognition thing has definitely lost steam, because the technology just doesn't work," says Jay Stanley, public education director of the technology and liberty program for the American Civil Liberties Union. "But video surveillance is continuing to permeate our public lives at a very rapid pace, and it will only continue, because the technology is getting cheaper. The cameras are getting more and more inexpensive and more and more powerful, and it's getting cheaper and cheaper to string them together with wireless technology."

David Brin, author of "The Transparent Society," compares the advances in camera technology to Moore's Law, which predicts that computer processing power will double every 18 months: "Every 18 months or so they get smaller, cheaper, more mobile, accurate and vastly more numerous." (The same might eventually be true for facial-recognition system software, say some experts, who warn against complacency with respect to the current problems of such systems.)

But just because there isn't yet a reliable way to use technology to match a face with images drawn from raw surveillance camera data doesn't mean that the government isn't above collecting those images.

In Washington, D.C., video surveillance by the police has been implemented with 16 cameras posted at 15 locations around the city, which offer 360-degree views and magnify up to 17 times. These cameras can be linked up to other government cameras, so that a police officer or member of the FBI can sit in an observation tower watching the city with an electronic eye that links hundreds of government cameras. The D.C. police have also looked at face-recognition software, but haven't decided whether to invest in it.

"It's one thing if you have a camera every 10 feet, and each one has a separate security guard who only sees that camera. That's bad enough," says Stanley. "But it brings it to a whole new level when all those cameras are being fed to a single location, or a single watcher, who could then gain an overview of the life of a city, and could really track an individual person as they move from field of vision to field of vision."

The rise of such systems, says Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, has ominous implications. Rotenberg argues that while in times of crisis, like the current war on terrorism, laws can be tightened up for a few years and then loosened again, but it's hard for a physically constructed system of video surveillance to ever just go away.

"Legal authority is something that can go back and forth based on acts of Congress," says Rotenberg. "But the cameras in Washington, D.C.: What exactly are the circumstances that would lead the metropolitan police department to take down those cameras? By creating these new systems of surveillance, we're reducing the level of privacy and amount of freedom permanently."

But what about the webcams that anybody can look at -- the ones that are turning us all into so many micro-stars in a 24-hour Internet show of our own? For Sweeney from Carnegie Mellon, watching the cameras watch us is a way of documenting the negative "creep of a person's expectations of privacy" as we all get comfortable living on candid camera. Some observers of the surveillance society even argue that the growth of cameras that let the public watch itself might serve as a check on Orwellian-style surveillance by the state. As author David Brin points out, in Britain there are some 1.5 million surveillance cameras, with most of them reporting to the police, but "Americans would never stand for that. We have just as many cameras per capita as they do in Britain, but they are far more discreet and distributed, nearly all of them in private and corporate hands."

Could such cameras in the hands of the citizenry be a check on the powers of the state? For the moment, in Flagstaff at least, much less grandiose things are being accomplished with the public webcam.

Since local schools use the square for music and dance performances, "Grandma back in Cincinnati will tune in to watch little Johnny play the tuba," says Paul Lancaster. Tourists visiting Flagstaff will stand in front of the camera, and call friends back home on their cellphone to tell them to look at the Web site, like a live, visual postcard. And parents of college students at Northern Arizona University log on to try to pick out their far-flung offspring on a Saturday afternoon in the square. "The kid comes down to the square and waves at Mom," says Lancaster.

For some critics, the chance that webcams could be an antidote to corporate and government surveillance doesn't necessarily balance out the possible negative uses of the Internet cameras. A webcam can turn anyone into a sex object, for example, without their ever being aware of it. Bill Brown, a member of a group that calls itself the Surveillance Camera Players, and gives free walking tours pointing out surveillance cameras in New York City, also wonders if all the cameras trained on public spaces in the U.S. -- from landmarks to national monuments and squares like Heritage Square in Flagstaff -- might help terrorists a world away plot their next attack.

"If we are worried about al-Qaida doing surveillance of tourist spots in America," wonders Brown, "then why would we install webcams that allow such surveillance, but from a distance, as far away as Pakistan? Satisfy the tourists, but don't give away too much to the terrorists; it's a weird balancing act."

Brown's concerns could conceivably mobilize the public, which in general doesn't seem excessively alarmed by ubiquitous surveillance. Author Brin thinks that the public doesn't mind being in the limelight all the time as long as they don't perceive themselves to be harmed by it.

"Joe and Jane on the street know that privacy has always been nebulous, so they focus on privacy violations that matter," says Brin. "The one criteria that counts to the common citizen is harm -- can a privacy violation do me palpable harm? That is the one thing that predicts whether the public feel ire about an information-age issue, or whether they just shrug."

Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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