Big brother or little sister?

July 11, 2007 at 3:00 am 3 comments

Photo of KimA bit like a volcano about to erupt, I am well on my way towards doing a comprehensive post (outpouring!) on my research into the surveillance society. Regular ThinkingShift readers will know this is a source of angst for me – the increasing encroachment by Government and private companies on our anonymity and privacy. If you’re interested in past posts, check out the Surveillance Society tab and the Privacy tab under Categories. I continue to be puzzled by why so many people don’t seem to be concerned about the surveillance going on. I tried to sort out my thoughts on this in my post Is Privacy a Generational Thing?, where I explored whether the MySpace and Facebook generation worry about revealing private facts. I haven’t plunged yet into finding out whether they are worried at all about CCTV cameras and increasing Government intrusion.

So….today’s post is about New Zealand. Being a Kiwi myself (yep!), I visit my relatives in Wellington often and have never worried about surveillance there. But news from the NZ Herald has me a tad worried that New Zealand is experiencing surveillance creep. It’s a bit like my recent post on the UK Government authorising the fingerprinting of school children as young as 5 years old.

The Giggles Day Care Centre in Te Puke is New Zealand’s only web-enabled day care centre. A webcam has been installed so parents can zoom in during the day to view what their little bundle of joy is up to. Now I understand this – you want to keep a protective eye on your children, especially in a society filled with pedophiles and weirdos of various types. And I’m sure that watching kiddies at play is fascinating stuff. No doubt the webcam will be used responsibly and is really Little Sister rather than Big Brother, but the issue is (once again) one of privacy. Little children living under the glare of webcam surveillance; teachers and centre staff being watched. I presume the images are transmitted to a secure site that only parents can access and with unique, hard to crack, passwords that frequently change. I say this because the technology being used for this kid webcam is the same as that used by a network of pedophiles who were recently busted in Christchurch, New Zealand for engaging teenagers in cyber sex.

I’m in two minds about all this: watching your child at play is an innocent thing, but it makes me feel uneasy. Children as objects of surveillance. And New Zealand has yet to formulate policies on webcam usage. Together with the UK busy fingerprinting 5 year olds, it makes me concerned that nothing we do in the future will be private, we’ll be constantly watched.

In fact, a report I found in my research (which I’ll share with you soon) presented a scenario of what a surveillance society could look and feel like in 2016. Pretty scary. Another chapter in this report followed a Day in the Life scenario of a family as they went about their daily business and were unknowingly snapped by CCTV cameras. This inspired me to do my own research into CCTV cameras following me in the Sydney CBD.

But first: I’ve learnt that the term “CCTV” is misleading because ‘closed-circuit’ is now obsolete technology. Modern surveillance systems are networked, digital cameras and should be referred to as “public webcams”.

How aware are we of public webcams? Have you ever taken the time to glance around as you go about shopping in your local mall or walk along public streets to see whether webcams are gazing silently in your direction?

In a 24 hour period, I purposely looked out for webcams on my way to and from work and during my lunch hour. I get off a train at Central Station in Sydney, get another train to Town Hall and walk to work, which is located in Pitt Street in the CBD. For non-Sydneysiders, this journey takes about 15 mins and along the way I go through the Queen Victoria Building (shopping complex). Going home, I took a slightly different route – walking from work to Wynyard station and taking a train back to Central. Here’s what I found:

  • 38 webcams (both private and public) watched my movements after getting off the train at Town Hall station, walking through the QVB and on the street towards work;
  • 8 webcams followed me on a swift 10 min walk from work and down Pitt Street mall (left hand side of a public space) and back to work.
  • 31 webcams saw me walk from work, to Wynyard station, getting off at Central Station and onto my train.
  • on a slightly different route, 58 webcams followed me from Central Station, to an ATM machine at Town Hall station, downstairs to a cafe in the QVB and then to work.

Now by my calculations, that makes 135 separate webcams whose line of sight I crossed in a 24 hour period and theoretically could have snapped me. That makes 135 separate images of me that could have been taken by people we don’t see. On the last leg of my investigation (with the 58 webcams), I think the security people were interested in what I was doing as two of them came out from who knows where and lurked behind me at the cafe. No doubt I looked very suspicious staring into the webcams, but it raises the question of how the people monitoring the cameras make the decision that someone is a ‘person of interest’. If I had not been dressed in work clothes, but was perhaps a homeless person merely seeking a moment’s shelter, would I have been targeted? Are stereotypes at play when people monitor?

I plan to request some of the images be retrieved as I know exactly where I was and at what time. Not sure how to do this just yet, but I want to see what resistance I meet up with or otherwise.

Take the ThinkingShift challenge: in a 24 hour period, as you go about your normal activities, count the number of webcams you see. Look carefully as some of them (at least in Australia) are very discrete and hard to spot. Then let me know what you find – what city you’re in and how many webcams potentially snapped you.

Entry filed under: CCTV, Privacy, Public webcams, Surveillance society.

Piranhas without teeth How curious!

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Oohlala  |  July 11, 2007 at 5:34 am

    I really have fun joining TS challange. I’m living in Bangkok.What I found in 24 hrs are
    # 20 webcams in my office
    # 48 webcams from 6 skytrain stations (8*6)

    Not as many webcams as you found.

  • 2. thinkingshift  |  July 11, 2007 at 9:17 am

    Welcome back to ThinkingShift Oohlala. Can you estimate the area covered by these cameras; or if not in area, what time period did you spot all the cameras eg during a 10 mins journey by walking and skytrain?

  • 3. oohlala  |  July 11, 2007 at 11:36 am

    Well, I took skytrain to go back home. My office is 7 kms far from my home. and it took about 15 minutes for the skytrain. I saw the webcams at every station.


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