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Next: Seeing `eye-to-eye' Up: Ethical and social Previous: Ethical and social

On the ``safety versus privacy'' argument

The ease with which wearable wireless video cameras allow one to roam about and share viewpoints with others raises many privacy issues [1], and it is important to look at these issues within the broader context of video privacy in general.

When I first joined the Media Lab, I expressed concern regarding the possible development of surveillance technologies, such as ubiquitous use of video cameras, face recognition and the like. My advisor, trying to relieve my concerns regarding a possible Big-Brother future, presented me with the argument of her advisor (Sandy Pentland) who was the director of the research on face recognition:

Cameras make the world a smaller place, kind of like a small town. You give up privacy in exchange for safety. In a small town, if you were suffering from a heart attack and collapsed on the floor of your kitchen, chances are better that someone would come to your rescue. Perhaps a neighbour would come over to borrow some sugar, and, since your door would be unlocked, would just come right in and see you had collapsed and come to your aid.
Although this analogy makes perfect logical sense, there was something that bothered me about it: On the safety versus privacy axis, the small town of the past and the Orwellian future I feared are very similar. However, if we look along a different dimension, characterized by symmetry, the small town and the Orwellian future are exact opposites. In a small town, the sheriff knows what everyone's up to, but everyone also knows what the sheriff is up to.

Phil Patton [23] discusses the surveillance dilemma, making reference to the ubiquitous ``ceiling domes of wine-dark opacity'', making mention that ``many department stores use hidden cameras behind one-way mirrors in fitting rooms'', and in general, that there is much more video surveillance than we might at first think. Sheraton's use of hidden cameras in employee changerooms [24] takes surveillance to new heights. The number of companies selling devices with hidden cameras inside (for example, smoke-detector cameras, fire sprinkler cameras, exit-sign cameras, etc) is growing rapidly.

With so much video surveillance in place, and growing at a tremendous rate, one wonders if privacy is a lost cause. If we are going to be under video surveillance, we may as well keep our own ``memory'' of the events around us, analogous to a contract in which both parties keep a signed copy. Falsification of video surveillance recordings is a point addressed in the movie Rising Sun, and in William Mitchell's book, The Reconfigured Eye [25]. However, if there is a chance that individuals might have their own account of what happened, organizations using surveillance would not even consider falsifying surveillance data. Even though it is easy to falsify images [25], when accounts of what happened differ, further investigation would be called for. Careful analysis (e.g. kinematic constraints on moving objects in the scene, the way shadows reflect in shiny surfaces, etc) of two or more differing accounts of what happened would likely uncover falsification that would otherwise remain unnoticed. The same technology that is used to demonstrate a person has removed an item from a department store without paying may be used by a person to demonstrate that he or she did, in fact, pay. One can only imagine what would have happened if the only video recording of the Rodney King beating were one that had been made by by police, using a police surveillance camera. Of course, most officials are honest, and would have no reason to be any more paranoid of the proposed virtual small-town than of the Orwellian world we might otherwise be heading towards.

next up previous
Next: Seeing `eye-to-eye' Up: Ethical and social Previous: Ethical and social

Steve Mann
Wed Feb 14 01:19:59 EST 1996