Surveillant Society

One aspect of the Egyptian uprising (among the others, most ongoing) that was overpowered by the wild acclamation of social media is something that has been quietly but powerfully changing societal norms over the last decade. It is simply the inclusion, on almost every mobile phone sold, of a digital camera. When 90% of the active population can, at any time, record an event they are witness to, and transmit it to the rest of the world instantly, many rules begin to change.

It’s not new, of course: “citizen journalism” has a long history before mobiles were prevalent, and the growing trend of “you report”-style news and things like Twitter streams in live reporting are as plain as the lens on your phone. And while I regularly deride the quality of camera phones, the truth is that improvements have been made that are now promoting phone-cams from joke cameras to true documentary devices.

The reason I bring this up today is because of a video I watched a few weeks back that documented some aggressive behavior by a few NYPD officers. You may have seen it — it’s up to around 400,000 views now. Not that this particular incident is of particular import (compared to the countless enormities being perpetrated every day around the world), but its trajectory (essentially viral) is signal. And, importantly, the quality of the video is good enough to prove identities in court, and arguably too difficult to fake. A few years ago this level of definition would only be available on a thousand-dollar camcorder. Today it’s on phones that are literally being given away. Malcom Gladwell may be out of vogue presently, but nevertheless this has all the appearances of one of those tipping points.


What happens, exactly, when every individual is not only a node connected to a worldwide network, but is also able to take anything they see and cause it to be made public and (efforts are made in this direction) unable to be taken down?

The consequences are, in an institutional way, the same loss of deniability that has affected citizens in cities like London, where CCTV cameras have squelched crime on the street, and around the world, where the loss of privileged privacy is now affecting everyone tagged in an embarrassing photo on Facebook. The assumption that one is not being recorded in any real way, a standard in civilization for more or less all of history, is being overturned. (I’ll be writing more about this in a longer series of posts on privacy, but the societal effect of widespread documentary devices is distinct enough to consider on its own.)

Places where this effect is already visible include some parts of government: official Congressional discussions, for instance, are frequently broadcast and have been recorded in their entirety for decades. You can’t take back something you say on the Senate floor. CEOs of major companies, too, have felt the sting of the ever-vigilant ears and eyes of the internet. Steve Jobs’ infamous response to a user regarding the iPhone 4 antenna issue is a good example, but similar things happen every day, and now that there’s no plausible deniability (since as head of the company almost all their public speech is on the record), CEOs have become slaves to the PR department in a bizarre inversion of internal corporate checks and balances.

And there is, of course, the more obvious example of things like police brutality. Rodney King was an early indicator of the directions things will take. But imagine if catching police when they acted illegally were to be the rule rather than the exception. That’s what the NYPD cops who hassled that passerby are finding out, and I suspect many more in positions where abuse of authority is a risk will find out soon as well. Too late for them to save themselves, but just in time for victims (not just of police brutality, but of any kind of unexpected or undocumentable trauma or danger – a hit and run, for example), who for centuries have lacked a way to strike back, for want of evidence. “Your word against mine” can be a serious and drawn-out dispute, subject to all kinds of subjective judgments, loyalties, rights, and arguments; “Your word against my high-definition video” gives citizens and the vulnerable a bit more leverage.

Things aren’t so simple, though. As anyone who has worked in visual media can tell you, deception and fakery are not only incredibly easy, but very common as well. Hoaxes, fakes, set-ups, staged scenarios, creative editing, post-production, photoshopping, and every other tool of the trade, all show something other than the raw, original product. I’m not familiar with forensic digital media evaluation tools in use today, but I get the feeling that if they’re not inadequate now, they will be so in a few years.

It matters because as “citizen journalism” becomes more commonplace, distinguishing between verified and unverified media will become a serious problem (and, I would hazard, a serious business). Indeed, where unverified reports are the rule and anecdote prevails over skepticism (cryptozoology, UFOs, faith healing, etc.), fakes are demonstrably much more common than in, say, day-to-day news reporting. As the volume of self-reported news (and implicit trust thereof) increases, the tools to vet it become that much more important.

And where better to search for proof of authenticity than in a courtroom? I think that we will find that, as we produce more and more images and video, less and less of it will be considered “admissible” (since “publishable” and the like are valueless now), a standard for which we will need to come to some kind of agreement about the definition of a “digital original.” Imaging companies have attempted to do this, but as I posted a short while ago, their method is inadequate.

The ability to determine whether something has been digitally tampered with may be a new and frustrating mire of red tape and legislative dysfunction, but it’s essential to a society that is capable of producing and tampering with documentary evidence. Timestamp incorrect? Inadmissible. Cropped? Inadmissible. EXIF blank? Inadmissible. Restrictions like these, and more sophisticated things like investigating sub-pixel metadata and so on, will be tools of legal protection the way, say, a public notary has been for paper documents.

Worth noting separately is the difference between what I am describing and the more familiar “surveillance society,” which is not related to decentralized documentational powers but centralized monitoring powers. I borrowed the idiom, and in some places these ideas overlap, but for the most part they are distinct (and it is upon the distinctions that I am focused).


A change that will need to occur along with this huge increase in citizen surveillance (because really, that’s what having cameras in the hand of every person amounts to) is finding out what is acceptable behavior on camera. This is, again, a topic I’ll discuss in later articles covering different aspects of privacy, but the relevant portions here are two in number: first, that what is acceptable for, say, an employer to see in your Facebook profile will change, and second, that control over your own data will be a sticking point one way or another.

These days it’s not uncommon for someone to lose a job or not be hired because of something seen and deemed irresponsible on their Facebook or Flickr page. I get the feeling that as a generation accustomed to the social net grows up and ascends the ranks, this kind of judgment will decrease in intensity, while at the same time such social checks will become more common. A more troublesome point is the fact that if you show everything, you’re likely to show something you should have hidden, and if you hide everything, everyone will assume you did so for a reason. Employers might require you to be Facebook friends with them so they can monitor you. Make no mistake, this is certainly a breach of privacy, but it’s going to happen (in all likelihood is happening already – do you do this?). Refusal to, or having pictures hidden, untagged, and so on, may for a time be considered withholding information. It’s going to be rough for a while.

But the end result is a society that is more at home with itself in public, and less concerned about what may or may not make it into the hands of our parents or employers — not necessarily because we have more control, but because the threat is known.

Yet the question of control is problematic as well. If a friend takes a picture of you, uploads a cropped version to Flickr and Facebook, and “keeps” the original in a folder somewhere, what is the rights situation with that picture? You’ve surrendered some of your claim by putting it on Facebook, where it is immediately catalogued, resized, copied, and so on. What if you retain the “original”? What if it’s your camera, or you took the picture, and they uploaded it? If the servers are in Iceland, the company is in the US, and the user is in Germany, what then? The issue of ownership is being muddied by the same process that has upended media industries – the transition of recordable data from physical to virtual property, infinitely copyable but still subject to many of the necessities of more traditionally-held items. Who owns what, who is legally bound to act in which way, which licenses supercede others? A team of lawyers and scholars might spend months putting together a cohesive argument for any number of possibilities. What chance does an end user have to figure out whether or not they have the right to print, distribute, delete, and so on?

Ownership of the data we create is a complicated and subtle thing, and right now the content is piling up, but understanding of how that data is stored, licensed, accessed, and so on is no better than it was. We’ll need to take charge of our own data, but do we even have the tools to do so? Have we already given up our rights to EULAs and obscure default settings? I doubt I could delete myself from the net without breaking a dozen “contracts” and as many loosely-interpreted laws.

Surveillant Society

But these are all bridges that are better crossed when we reach them. It’s fun to play pretend in a future of gigapixel phone cams and Blade Runner-style “enhance,” but there are changes other than technical and legal ones that are perhaps better worth our considering. (Why I didn’t put them at the beginning of this article, the better to get my point across, is, as usual, a mystery. But hopefully your eye was drawn here, dear reader, by the bold text above.) I’m speaking of our responsibilities as a society to use these new tools judiciously and responsibly.

A few days ago, I was at a local coffee shop, writing as usual. A girl sat her things down on the table in front of me, then went outside to smoke. When she got back a few minutes later, her bag was gone. Someone had stolen it, in front of my eyes (and, in my defense, the eyes of the baristas and everyone else). There were, by a conservative estimate, some 40 cameras in the place, counting webcams, phone cams, and point and shoots, though unfortunately no security cameras. All of those cameras were either in pockets or pointing at nothing. Does anyone else sense a missed opportunity here?

Don’t you think it’s our responsibility as members of society to back each other up however we can? The guys on that balcony in New York knew the biker being cited, so they recorded it, and happened to catch questionable behavior on the part of the cops. Would they have recorded it if they hadn’t known the guy? Perhaps only if they saw the other man being hassled? What if they were recording, and nothing of serious consequence occurred — did they violate anyone’s privacy? Maybe, maybe not. But I think that increasingly, the answers to these questions are tending towards the “record first” mentality.

In a situation of medium importance (we’ll call it) like that one, the constant presence of cameras and smartphones is, at the very least, potentially welcome. But consider a situation like the ongoing revolutions in the middle east, where cameras have also become pervasive. No government is vigilant enough (though some are brutal enough) to prevent a hundred thousand massed citizens from taking pictures of the force suppressing them, or of the crowd itself, or of atrocities finished in seconds that would otherwise have only been hinted at in second-hand reports in newspapers. Again: the camera, combined with the will and means to use it and spread the resultant images, gives the underdog leverage, as with the lesser case of police aggression in New York, and makes quaint the traditional obfuscatory tactics of oppressive regimes. The policy of shutting down cellular networks and internet is a desperate move and will only be effective as long as we don’t have the means of circumventing it. Ad-hoc networks will emerge as a serious force to be reckoned with, and represent a true democratization of data distribution.

Not that we should all be constantly suspicious of each other at all times and in all places (though I admit I at least should have been vigilant enough to notice such a brazen theft as that in the coffee shop), but it seems a little strange to me, that a crime should be suffered to be committed in the presence of some three dozen cameras. The logical next step, after assuming one is being recorded at all times when in public (potentially true) is ensuring one is being recorded at all times when in public. Theoretically, you won’t act any differently, since you’re already operating under that assumption.

Yes, I’m suggesting that, when it’s technically feasible, our cameras should be recording at all times, unless instructed otherwise. Our personal imaging devices have become more and more accessible over the years, and this is really the vanishing point for that trend, which we may approach asymptotically (or Zenoistically, if you will) Many cameras do this on command, especially high-speed models made to catch events too brief for the camera operator to react. The limitations are technical only — and philosophical, of course. If your phone recorded the voice of an attacker, or the gunshot of a policeman preceding a warning rather than following it, would you regret that functionality? If you could be sure that this information could not be obtained except by your requesting it, however idealistic that notion is, would you submit to it? And how long before it’s considered negligent to have not recorded an accident or criminal act?

The notion of privacy in public is being demolished anyway. Every inch of your city has been mapped by Google; you cross the paths of dozens of cameras every day. In cities like New York and LA, where filming on the street is common, you can sign away your appearance rights by walking past a “recording in progress” sign. A large number of people voluntarily (or unknowingly, but that’s another story) let themselves be tracked by their phones or cameras. Your home address, place of work, and general likeness are public information. Your shopping habits, brand preferences, and shoe size are on record and being sold to the highest bidder. Forensic audio analysts in London tracked the location of sounds in the city based on variations detected in the power grid. You have no privacy in public, haven’t had any for a long time, and what little you have you tend to give away. But the sword is double-edged; shouldn’t we benefit from that as well as suffer? A surveillance society is watched. A surveillant society is watching.

It’s not an idea that’s easy to get used to, but neither was the idea of widespread instantaneous photography in the late 19th century. The fact is it’s happening, and to pretend otherwise only retards progress. In 10 years, the idea that you’re not being recorded at all times when outside your home (in any populated area, anyway) will be as quaint as the idea now that you can maintain any kind of meaningful anonymity while availing yourself of modern banking, social internet, and mobile phones. A world where fear of persecution, accident, and injustice are unfounded is a fine dream, but that’s not the world we live in, nor the world we’re approaching. Our society will be a surveillant society; it’s up to us to make that a virtue, and not just another fear.