Open surveillance to the public

Automated note: This post was written more than 14 years ago and I have probably not looked at it since.

Older posts may not align with who I am today and how I would think or write. In particular, some of my oldest posts (high school and college age) are fairly cringeworthy in places, or are in reaction to a cultural context that no longer applies. However, I have left them public because I believe in keeping old web pages alive, and it's interesting to look back and see how I've changed.

(And if there were nothing I wrote 10 years ago that I disagreed with today, what would that say about me?)

My local paper, the Daily Progress, ran a story today about a proposal to install 30 security cameras on the Downtown Mall. I think there's a wrong way to do this, and a right way. I'll explain why the wrong way is wrong, and suggest a scheme that could lead to a right (or better) way.

Psychology of surveillance

Surveillance cameras have a profound affect upon the psychology of both the watchers and the watched.

  1. Surveillance implies that we need to be watched, that we are all "potentially bad people".
  2. When we are expected to behave poorly, we don't feel the need to be on our best behavior -- someone else is doing the enforcement, someone else has taken the power.
  3. When I am away from home, I behave like a responsible adult. But when I am at home under the watchful eye of my parents, I behave more like a child. I am, in a way, expected to do so.
  4. This effect is easy to see in prisons. Even well-behaved inmates eventually fall into the mindset of "social contract apathy." In a way, security cameras may produce institutionalization of the public.
  5. Watching someone through a security camera immediately imbues the subject with an air of dangerousness and crime. (Next time you see footage of CCTV on the television, pay attention to your assumptions about the shadowy, grainy figure moving about on-screen.)
  6. Prison guards, given power and anonymity, invariably grow to hate and fear the inmates, to the point of brutality. (Some famous psychological studies on this topic have had very disturbing results, indicating that power+anonymity leads to wanton brutality and hatred, even in otherwise normal people.)
  7. Cameras create a (greater) divide between the watchers and the watched, in terms of rights, privileges, and power.
  8. When someone else gains power and implicitly or explicitly distrusts you, you distrust, fear, and hate them.
  9. This increasing mutual distrust between civilians and authorities leads to oppositional behaviors among the civilians.
  10. The police, who are supposed to be our protectors, become our prison guards, whether they intend to or not.

Level the playing field

Imagine that provided real-time streaming video from each camera, and every camera had a little sign next to it saying "Watch from here!". In effect, the cameras could be "marketed" as a tool for the people.

  1. By watching the mall-cams, citizens 1) invest time in the Mall and 2) feel greater connection to it, both of which increase the feeling of "ownership" and responsibility.
  2. When you give people trust, they return the favor, and will work with you. They feel a greater sense of responsibility.
  3. The Mall becomes a stage, not a prison. The world can watch! (The mere presence of webcams implies an audience. No one actually needs to be watching for the effect to occur.)
  4. Rather than giving extra power to the authorities, everyone is given the same tool.

Do it anyway

It's not like we have to get permission to do this. The cameras will be wireless, and there is little to no encryption on standard CCTV wireless signals -- existing equipment for VCR-to-DVD transcoding can do the necessary number crunching. But cooperation would be more in the spirit of what I have suggested.

This is by no means a finished proposal. I want to hear your thoughts as well.

Responses: 13 so far Feed icon

  1. Open Surveillance at says:

    [...] Tim McCormick is cool with surveillance cameras, as long as we all get to watch them. [...]

  2. chris says:

    Nice analysis. I especially love the idea of allowing people to view real-time camera images online, and aside from the geeky aspect, I'd certainly like to see more community involvement in issues like this.

    The article mentions a few possible spots where cameras might be installed -- City Hall, Transit Center, etc -- those are great places, but I assume (and I don't know if this is true) that most crimes in the downtown area don't actually occur on the pedestrian mall, but on side streets. If that's the case, and the cameras actually get installed, then we might end up with a few good angles, but mostly boring alleyways to look at.

    Regardless, I'm not a fan of the camera idea to begin with. But if it happens, I'd definitely want them to be accessible to all.

  3. Tim McCormack says:

    [...] I assume [...] that most crimes in the downtown area don't actually occur *on* the pedestrian mall, but on side streets.

    Perhaps, but as Waldo noted, the Downtown Mall likely has an altogether lower crime rate than surrounding areas to begin with, so that sort of logic may not dictate camera placement.

    If that's the case, and the cameras actually get installed, then we might end up with a few good angles, but mostly boring alleyways to look at.

    Naw, man, the bums are always up to something interesting. :-P

  4. Terras says:

    That prison experiment in question is the Stanford Experiment, I assume.

    Also, this method is already used in stores and resident buildings. Tis channel 900 on my TV for the feed to all the cameras in my building. :3

  5. Tim McCormack says:

    Yes, the infamous Stanford prison experiment. (And some other follow-ups that were less...ah..."in-depth".)

  6. Gomez says:

    Hmm. I started the first controllable webcam company in 96 (long since sold it) and we had a lot of discussions about this; you are articulating what I called the 'little brother' approach (if the cams are all owned and operated by the state, or some closed-source entity, then it is Big Brother - but if they are open, then everybody gets to be his/her own 'little brother')

    We actually formed a working committee to write a national white paper about the issue - where should you expect privacy? (English common law generally holds that if you are on a public street you have no expectation of privacy) - also in our group was the general counsel for the National Air and Space Museum (they were installing cams in the Hall of Flight), and the general counsel at UC Berkeley - they (ironically) had a controllable camera on Sproul Plaza, a/k/a Free Speech Plaza from the Mario Savio days. They solved their dilemma by not letting you zoom in too far to prevent identification of individual faces - but distinctive clothing, or bicycles, or something usually made it possible to track individuals anyway.

    For some additional historic background, check the WikiPedia page on the Panopticon ( ) -- or read up on the utopian communities like Phalanx, NJ, built around the general ideas of Jeremy Bentham.

  7. Tim McCormack says:

    @Gomez: Oooh, controllable webcams would be a blast!

  8. S.Meyer says:

    The use of most Surveillance cameras in germany is forbidden. Its a long way to get em to work outside railroud stations and airports. And in my opinion its a good thing.

    A Camera isnt able to fix problems caused by people or a system.

  9. Council Taking Bids for Downtown Cameras at says:

    [...] for $300k, though it remains to be seen what the bids determine is feasible. I’m fond of Tim McCormack’s proposal that, fine, we put up the cameras, but that all the video be streamed real-time to the [...]

  10. Barking Squirrel says:

    The next great equalizer; video surveillance.

    Mankind cannot handle the technology we have. We've plundered our environment. regulated and even oppressed our fellow human beings with the aid of technology. How will freely available video surveillance be any better? We all have to work faster and faster, like puppets on a string, to live in society and pay the bills. We have fewer and fewer freedoms as we are expected to perform and act a certain way. When you hold a spring down the pressure has to go somewhere, sometime. Video surveillance is repressive. Is that healthy? Will the repressiveness eventually be released in unexpected ways? I would venture to say we're starting to see evidence of this now. And how will this new tool be used by business to up our productivity? And by the way, who's going to pay for the bandwidth?

  11. Basic psychology of surveillance « Waking Up Orwell says:

    [...] c/o Tim McCormack’s Brain on Fire [...]

  12. mcdiesel says:

    this is offensive. surveillance is fucked. break a surveillance camera near you.

  13. mcdiesel says:

    but i actually agree with the author and am in total solidarity. If these good people are going to surveille us we have a duty to rip their footage. what greater fool then the surveillor?

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