On Surveillance

I don’t have a problem with someone filming another person on their mobile phone in a public area where it’s obvious that many people are watching, so why do I have a problem with surveillance cameras in workplaces and some other locations? Isn’t that inconsistent? What’s the difference? I think the answer is that the first scenario does not break social protocols. If you’re speeding down the highway, you obviously know that there are going to be tens, if not hundreds, of other people watching you. That somebody might capture your flaunting of the law on camera does not change the social protocol. That is, you know you are being watched by human eyes. The same goes for taking recordings during meetings. There are other people in the meeting and they’re going to hear what you say anyway. In the second scenario, the camera is always turned on, even when there are no other people around. This is the important difference. It is easy to forget that your actions might be caught on camera, even if the camera is in plain sight and there are notices everywhere warning that there are surveillance cameras in use. So a woman might adjust her bra, or a man might pick his nose, not realising in the instant that it’s all being caught on camera. You might begin to sing, forgetting that it’s being recorded. Despite technology, we are still very social animals. That means we think in terms of the other people who are physically around us, overlooking the fact that technology enables others to be present in spite of their separation in space and time.

At the QRL labs of NICTA, surveillance cameras have been installed for research purposes in the hallways. I’ve grown kind of used to them. But I do completely forget about them until I get up from my desk and see them hanging out of the ceiling in the hallway. If one were installed in my office where it could record me at my desk, I think it would similarly escape my attention until I turned around and looked at it. I wonder what kind of unconscious embarrassing behaviours the camera would record if it were trained on my desk?