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.