We enjoy our undisturbed private life, and for good reason. It’s a cherished part of life that allows us to form personal relationships, to think and create without outside influence or judgment, and to form our own, informed opinions about things.
But many of us live with an unsettling truth: maintaining our private life is becoming harder and harder. For some, almost from the moment you step out of the house in the morning to the moment you arrive home in the evening, you are being watched. Walking down the street to the bus stop, on the ride to work, entering and leaving the office – if not inside of it, too – even chatting with friends on the benches near the park – it’s possible that you are almost constantly under the watchful eye of public surveillance systems.
Their aim may often be well-intentioned – like to keep us safe – but this is not always the case. And even when it is, public surveillance can be harmful. This should cause us to think more carefully about its use, measure more precisely what benefits it brings us, and consider more thoughtfully what it takes from us.
What is public surveillance?
Surveillance is the monitoring of some subject – a person or persons, a place or event, even information – in order to gather information about that subject. Public surveillance is surveillance that targets the general public or public spaces. The public surveillance camera is easily the most iconic and ubiquitous example of public surveillance in action. But public surveillance can be done in other ways, such as through computers and the internet or phones and other electronics.
Public surveillance is often carried out by public authorities, or at their direction. The public surveillance cameras we see overlooking city streets may be operated by the local police force or another public security service, or administered by a private company contracted by a public authority.
Businesses and shops also use closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras to secure their premises and prevent theft. Surveillance to secure office spaces or other private businesses may not always constitute public surveillance per se, although their cameras very often monitor the outside streets and surrounding environs, not to mention all customers. But even bona fide public surveillance by businesses has become a very real thing.
Where are public surveillance cameras used?
For many people, especially those who live and work in cities, it is quite hard to go about daily life without falling under the gaze of public surveillance cameras. They are in streets, on public transport, in public buildings and other public spaces. They may even be fitted to drones or other devices.
A better question might be to ask where they are not used. Public bathrooms, we hope, and hotel rooms. Technological advancement, artificial intelligence, and increasing cost-efficiency have transformed public surveillance cameras from wall-mounted installations the size of bread boxes to tiny, high-definition devices that can be easily hidden and yet record in all directions, transmitting to computers almost anywhere. And they’re seemingly everywhere.
What was the idea behind public surveillance cameras in the beginning? What is the situation now?
The primary purpose of early public surveillance cameras was security, which is evident from their earliest application. Russian physicist Léon Theremin invented a mechanical CCTV system in June 1927. It consisted of a manually operated camera and wireless shortwave transmitter and receiver. It was shown to Joseph Stalin, impressed him, and was soon installed in the courtyard of the Kremlin in Moscow to monitor approaching visitors.
The use of public surveillance cameras steadily increased throughout the twentieth century, especially following World War II. In 1968, Olean, New York became the first city in the United States to install video cameras along its main business street, with the purpose of reducing crime. Experiments and trials of public surveillance cameras were carried out in the UK in the 1970s and ’80s, and first installed permanently by the local government of King's Lynn, Norfolk, in 1987.
Even as its use was only beginning to proliferate, we were warned. Books like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four gave people a peek into the extremes of public surveillance. At the very least, we took more notice of the growing number of public surveillance cameras. Which wasn’t saying much – they became increasingly easier to spot.
Their primary purpose, in most applications, is still security. But now the technology allows them to record not only our image on screen, but to scan and save our faces, our eyes, to record how we move and so much more. We now quite rightly ask where to draw the line — to what extent do public surveillance cameras keep us safe, and at what point do they become merely tools to spy instead of secure?
Why is public surveillance harmful?
However well-intentioned it is, and even when it is used strictly to fulfill the primary aim of keeping the public safe, public surveillance can still be harmful.
The advancement in public surveillance technology has given rise to new fears in the application and extent of public surveillance. Human rights advocates have long warned of the threat public surveillance poses to our right to privacy. The increasing use of mass surveillance, which is public surveillance on a mass scale, without using the surveillance to target a specific place for a specific purpose, is especially troubling.
And the use of biometric mass surveillance is downright alarming. This form of public surveillance sucks up huge amounts of data, all without our knowledge. Our facial and retinal scans, fingerprints, voiceprints – all of it can be recorded and saved, and used in ways we would never suspect.
Effects on public life
By its very nature, public surveillance fosters, at least to some degree, an environment of suspicion and fear. When you put a camera in front of someone, it will very often change how they behave, at least a little bit. When everyone knows that they are being watched whenever they venture out of their homes, it quite naturally causes some to change how they act.
Even people who do no wrong may choose to change or self-censor their behavior. For instance, you may feel quite comfortable saying something to your friend in person, but if you know you’re being watched and what you say might be recorded, you may decide against sharing – even though there would be nothing wrong, legally or ethically, in what you would say. It’s just human nature.
This is known as the “chilling effect” of public surveillance. It can cause people to decide against exercising their basic rights, like freedom of speech or peaceful protest. A recent example of such a situation occurred last year in Hungary. School teachers, joined in solidarity with thousands of fellow citizens, protested for better pay and working conditions. Many teachers who we recorded being at the protests were fired, and many other teachers thus decided not to protest. This is also true online, where we are not only cautious that what we write or post may be monitored, but so too are the sites we visit or the groups we show support for or interact with.
Public surveillance can also perpetuate other societal problems, like discrimination. Data aggregated from public surveillance systems can be fed into algorithms, but when fed with biased data, the algorithm will reinforce the biases within the data it has, further intensifying unwarranted discrepancies in law enforcement. For instance, police forces may decide to put up more public surveillance cameras in areas with a high population of ethnic groups they perceive as more likely to commit crime, and it can lead to potentially discriminatory practices like predictive policing.
Public surveillance systems can be used for more personal purposes as well. Public surveillance cameras can be used to monitor road conditions and real-time traffic reports. This helps people choose the best time to drive and the best road to take.
They can also be used to record meetings, especially public or local government meetings, and then made available to the public online. People can then access these meetings at their leisure, and stay informed about public events and policies without having to disrupt their personal or professional lives to attend the meetings.
Does public surveillance have any positives?
On its face, the use of public surveillance to reduce crime, especially violent crime, and catch perpetrators seems like a noble endeavor. And studies have found that CCTV cameras may act as a deterrent to crime. But even if that gain is real, we must always ask ourselves if it outweighs the costs – the “chilling effect” and the invasion of our privacy that public surveillance will cause, and also the knowledge that, when in a public place, we are always being watched.
It can be a hard balance to strike, but an important one. We must keep in mind that it is not public surveillance cameras but rather our fundamental rights – our right to speak truth to power, to gather with others and protest in public, to have the privacy and space to think critically and make free, informed decisions – that make our societies truly safe and healthy.
Further reading on this topic:
Alexis Antoine, Wassim Chouak, Tyler Nix, Adam Borkowski, Javier-Garcia / Unsplash