Privatized Surveillance?

Internet Eyes
Internet Eyes

Internet Eyes, the online CCTV monitoring service has finally launched for a three-month trial after a long period of media discussion.  The service, if you’ve not encountered it yet, encourages “ordinary” people to open an account (for which they must pay – a recent development) and then watch four live feeds from CCTV cameras in various stores which are not local to the observer.  If the surveillants see any suspicious activity they should hit the relevant “alert” button, which will then trigger a locally-based CCTV operative to take a look at the feed and then decide on whether to take action.  For alerts leading to apprehension of a criminal or anti-social act, the surveillant will be awarded 3 points, for well-meaning but ultimately false alerts he or she will get 1 point, and for unjustified alerts they will receive nothing.  At the end of each month, the surveillant with the most points can win up to £1,000.

As ever, there are a number of ethical issues associated with Internet Eyes (IE), and several critics.  If we deal with the more extreme first, No CCTV refers to IE as a “Stasi style citizen spy game” which hopes to “normalise people to surveillance and aim to make people ignore the uses to which constant monitoring can be put by the state or corporations.”  The site correctly likens IE to a similar project in Texas which seeks to use members of the public to watch various points along the US-Mexico border to alert them to illegal immigration or drugs smuggling.  Contrary to No CCTV’s opinion that the Texas project has failed, though, its own website implies that it is still going strong. No CCTV seems to be making a few mistakes in its article in likening IE to the Stasi insofar as the latter was a state-run intelligence organisation which sought to identify, punish and often kill “enemies of the state” (typically political dissidents), while IE is a commercial entity monitoring commercial contexts for predominantly low-level criminal activity. Overuse of the “Stasi” tag in relation to surveillance is dangerous as it leaves us with little comparison if/when the state does ever get to that level.  Even if we take the comparison seriously, though, the authority for the Stasi was claimed by the state, while the authority for IE is claimed by the shops which sign up to the service.  Do these shops have the right to ask members of the public to view their CCTV footage in order to catch people attempting to defraud them?  The answer would seem to be yes, albeit within certain ethical limitations (for example, that those people are held accountable).  As to whether this is part of a grander conspiracy to “normalise people to surveillance”, I’m not sure I’m qualified to comment.

The same confusion is made by No CCTV  again when they argue that “one of the claims made by Internet Eyes is that the reason CCTV doesn’t work is because there is hardly anyone watching them in real time. This just isn’t true. The vast majority of council/police cameras in the UK are watched 24 hours a day by trained staff. It is these cameras that have been subject to the most studies and have been shown to be ineffective.”  Again, though, they have moved from discussing cameras operated by commercial enterprises (IE) to those operated by the state (council/police cameras).  I accept that the distinction between state and industry isn’t as clear-cut as many philosophers would like, but nor is it so indistinct as to allow such a blurring without justification.

Big Brother Watch (BBW) has offered a slightly less inflamed response, with spokesman Alex Deane saying, “Whatever one thinks of our surveillance culture, we can all agree that the technology is better off in the hands of trained, accountable professionals rather than voyeurs.”  This seems to be a straw man argument, though.  If, as IE claims, the purpose is to alert the regular CCTV operator, or shop manager, to a possible incident, then that person is precisely the trained and accountable professional who gets to make the call as to whether or not he or she should act.  On the BBW website Daniel Hamilton comments that, “it’s astonishing to think that innocent people out doing their shopping could soon be spied on by an army of busy bodies with an internet connection.”  Unfortunately this is already the case for those who are savvy enough with the internet, given the proliferation of CCTV over IP.  In the case of IE, however, it seems as if measures have been taken to ensure that it is unlikely that I will recognize the shop or the shoppers involved: it is not as if I’ll be monitoring the Tesco round the corner from my house.

A more measured response can be found in Practical Ethics News, which considers the fear that some have of the content from IE being recorded and uploaded to YouTube or similar sites.  This is dismissed as being no different from video being recorded on a mobile phone in public and similarly uploaded, which might be a little quick: your mobile phone does not record four different views at once, and most people do not record their shopping trips (although, as Practical Ethics News points out, with permanently-on wearable cameras coming to the market, this might be about to change).  Even so, it should not be difficult to trace which user recorded and uploaded which data, and then punish them accordingly.

A greater concern which Practical Ethics News raises is the danger of social sorting, that surveillants might be more inclined to watch black people than white, operating under the belief that black people are more likely to steal.  This would potentially lead to a greater number of alerts involving black people and so disproportionate action being taken.  I agree that this is certainly a danger, and it will be interesting to view statistics from IE as to the nature of their alerts over time to see whether this fear is well-founded.  If so then this is clearly something which would need to be addressed.

From my own perspective I am uncomfortable with IE for the danger that it promotes voyeurism for financial gain, although even then this is far from clear-cut.  It does not seem out-of-place that a shop should offer a reward for the apprehension of shop lifters, nor that I should watch my fellow shoppers from an in-store cafe (perhaps with the hope of picking up that reward).  If this is the case then the fact that I am doing the same thing at a distance does not seem to be problematic.  My own motivation might be base voyeurism, hoping to see a person slip on a banana skin, or a more high-minded desire to help prevent crime in a community, such as the subscriber to IE quoted by the BBC.  If the shop displays signs that CCTV is in operation, as all must do in the UK, then shoppers are aware of the fact and can choose not to patronise that particular shop.  CCTV may not work in the commercial setting, as suggested by research, but if that is the case then the subscribers to IE are simply going to waste their time and their money.

As such, I struggle to see a problem from the perspective of surveillance ethics with IE.  I do think that there are other problems: most notably that subscribers get four free alerts each month, after which they have to buy more.  Hence in order to win the cash prize of £1,000 a subscriber will probably have to buy a considerable number of credits and spend a great deal of  time sitting in front of their screen, so in short the prize is going to be much harder to “win” than might at first seem to be the case.  However, this is not a problem with the fundamental concept of using the public to watch CCTV in order to alert local management of potential problems, which seems to be the core concern of many of the commentators considered above.

If there’s something that I’ve missed or got wrong, then do please comment.  As I said, I’d quite like to find IE objectionable, but it seems that either I am lacking in imagination or my desires are simply misplaced.

7 thoughts on “Privatized Surveillance?

  1. Thank you for a balanced review.

    There are a number of issues raised in your final paragraph which I would like the opportunity to comment upon.

    Firstly a Viewer receives 5 Alerts when their account is activated, for each positive or non malicious alert sent (as fed back by the camera owner) their account is credited with another alert.

    At no time does a Viewer have to pay for alerts.

    If at any time you would be interested in any further statistics then please do not hesitate to contact me directly

    Max Patey
    Commercial Director
    Internet Eyes

  2. In general, surveillance on private/commercial property by the property owner is far less ethically and pragmatically problematic than surveillance in public areas. As you say, people who object to commercial surveillance can ‘opt out’ simply by not shopping in stores that have CCTV, or that are signed up to this scheme, or whatever other criteria people may have for ‘unacceptable surveillance’. This isn’t an option we typically have when dealing with public spaces, where the surveillance is (almost always) run by local or national government and/or police forces – we have no equivalent way to place pressure on these organisations. Governments are only affected by elections, which come about rarely and have a vast number of issues affecting our vote in them, many of which most people would consider more important than ‘how much surveillance has this government approved lately’. The police are even less constrained than that.

    For these reasons, my main interest in this scheme would be how it interacts with governmental bodies. For instance, can the police view the feeds? If so, can they view them at will, or at request, or would they need a warrant or ‘reasonable cause’ to view footage? Would their access be live, or after the fact? Any police officer, or just selected/approved ones? How about private security companies and other quasi-police organisations?

    Also, I’d be interested in whether any of the cameras have any view of public areas – for instance, cameras on window displays which also capture part of the street outside. As far as I’m aware there’s no law against this, but it raises obvious problems with cameras capturing movements of people who haven’t ‘opted in’ by entering a store displaying signs for their CCTV and this scheme.

  3. Ethics aside, the only reason I could see for anyone to contribute to InternetEyes by watching video streams would be out of a feeling that they are doing something for ‘the greater good’ of either society or otherwise.

    If you do the maths of what is required to roughly break even:
    Cost: £12.99 per year
    Reward: More than 45 hours per month – £1.00 for 12 months
    12.99 – (12 x 1.00) = – £0.99

    So for spending at least 540 hours looking at a screen during the year you get the privilege of paying £0.99 to help owners tackle theft, anti-social behaviour etc. I would imagine people working in sweat shops get more than this…

  4. Denny,

    Thanks for your comments, and I agree that the levels of accountability for the government and police are different to those faced by commercial enterprises. I also agree as regards the information that is collected by the cameras which should be restricted to the relevant property and not incorporate public areas, where there is no sense of opting in or out of the surveillance. Surveillance should be discriminating as regards who is surveilled. To the best of my knowledge such positioning of cameras is not illegal, or at least did not appear so in the recent case of Mary Bale. While it seems strange to say that no-one should be able to monitor public areas at will (that would ban sitting at street cafes and watching the world go by), the collecting and recording of data surely requires a greater level of accountability than is currently the case.

    However what strikes me as interesting in the case of IE is not so much the collection of the information as what is done with it. As I said in the article, the information is only going to people who may typically go to that shop and those who are paid to monitor the streams anyway. Given that the purpose of the cameras is presumably in the first instance to deter and detect crime (and in the second to monitor customer behaviour), it seems acceptable that the police should be given access when relevant. The question then arises as to whether the police should have access when the information is not relevant, which is what you’re getting at with police monitoring the live streams. To the best of my knowledge, the drain that this would have on police resources at present would make it an unattractive option, but that does not take account of the possibility of mission/function creep in the long run.

    This does highlight the need for accountability of the users of IE. In specific (and justified) cases one would expect the police to have access to camera feeds when warranted, which is currently the case. If IE allowed police or the state to access camera feeds at will, however, extending their capabilities from public areas to commercial properties then, as you say, there are grounds for concern unless or until that process can be properly monitored and all parties held to account.

    Thanks again for commenting – you raise some very interesting points.

  5. Alex,

    Thanks for your comments. I would say that doing something for the greater good, or getting paid at a level commensurate with workers in sweat shops are very much ethical issues.

    Your point is a good one. In terms of financial remuneration a subscriber is unlikely to break even. Your calculations don’t take into account the monthly “prize” (if I can term it such) of £1,000, which would clearly make a difference to the person who won it. Clearly, though, if the site has 12,000 subscribers (that’s a complete guess – I’ve no idea of the exact number) then 11,999 are not going to be seeing that money. Nonetheless, they might chose to see their contribution of £0.99/month as payment to enter a competition, which seems fair provided they consent to the payment.

    However the concept of a subscription (and subsequent remuneration) is not there to encourage people to sign up but rather to deter voyeurism (albeit a very mild deterrent) and lessen the cost to those who are committed to the service. Hence I don’t think that it is fair to compare these transactions with pay. As you say, subscribers are more likely motivated by service to the community and will presumably accept the payment as a means of vetting. If they don’t, they won’t subscribe. I’m not sure that the remuneration makes very much difference, at least I’ve yet to see its value or indeed its purpose beyond rewarding those of a particular level of dedication.

    Were I to sign up to IE (and I am torn between doing so in order that I know what I’m talking about and not wanting to condone the service) my suspicion is that I would leave it open in a window constantly running in the background. That would comfortably ensure that I was on the system for more than 45 hours a month without committing that amount of my time to watching what I imagine will be some pretty dull CCTV feeds. But then again, that probably would be setting ethics to one side!

  6. The Mary Beale case is possibly a red herring – those cameras were on a private residential property, not a commercial property, and I believe the law does make a distinction between those two applications of CCTV (although I can’t find a source to confirm or deny this right now).

  7. Look, IE is a raffle you have to work long hours to have a chance of winning, and even then, your chances of topping the table are slim. As far as I am concerned, this is just a scam aimed at parting the ignorant from their cash.

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