One of the fastest growing industries in the United States is surveillance. Municipalities, retail emporia, banks, and condominium associations are spending millions of dollars on video cameras to record the actions of citizens. As if there were not enough to view on network TV, cable, and You Tube, some of us are spending countless additional hours watching the rest of us.
Timaru, New Zealand
I saw my first video cameras in public space when I visited Czechoslovakia, then a Communist country, in 1985. As I wandered the streets of Prague and looked up to see the cameras beaming down on me, I considered them one of the evils of an authoritarian state, whose leaders were obsessive about identifying dissident behavior. Little did I imagine that just a few years later, the democracies of the Free World would outdo their Communist counterparts of the past in the number of surveillance devices implanted in the public sphere.
There are at least three types of surveillance. The first is surveillance for security, which has two variants – cameras in public spaces like airports and subway stations intended to capture deviant activity such as attempted robbery or terrorist actions, and cameras on private property aimed at identifying trespassers or potential miscreants. Surveillance for security may possibly improve collective safety, although the degree to which this is true is yet to be verified. It is not clear, for example, that more than four million video cameras in Great Britain have justified their costs and their massive invasion of privacy by bringing about a concomitant measure of public security.
A second type of surveillance is based on the claim of improving traffic safety, but its principal raison d’être is generating revenue for municipalities. This is done by photographing motorists’ activity, which can lead to fines for violations of traffic rules. Municipalities locate surveillance cameras at intersections where motorists are likely to run a red light or make an illegal turn. Drivers are frequently unaware of these cameras until they receive a ticket for $100 in the mail with a photograph of their car captured in a compromising position. The operation of such devices has lined the coffers of many an impoverished municipality, while barely reducing accidents and in the bargain infuriating citizens.
Chicago, South Loop
The third type of surveillance is more covert. It entails monitoring shoppers in retail outlets to better understand their behavior. Defenders of this practice, which seems a gross affront to the right of privacy, claim that it improves the shopping experience by revealing aspects of merchandise display and presentation that don’t seem as effective as they might be. This type of surveillance is growing in popularity and businesses are spending millions of dollars for sophisticated systems that point cameras at display counters, clothing racks, and information booths to observe how customers behave. As yet, there is no requirement that stores inform customers that they are being watched, something that would defeat the purpose of the surveillance – to catch shoppers unaware and thus respond to their preferences and dislikes as they encounter the store’s presentation of merchandise.
If we move from video surveillance to the Internet, where users are increasingly carefree about revealing their innermost secrets and are inordinately tolerant of social networking sites that want to share their data with millions of others, we can see where the gathering of consumer information is going. Marketers dream of tracking customers at every step and offering them opportunities to buy something wherever they are. This can be done by using a GPS system or taking advantage of the willingness to telegraph one’s movements on social networking sites.
In the late 1940s and the 1950s, when I was growing up, there was enough public trust to tolerate a high degree of anonymity in public culture and little motivation to be constantly connected to others. With no cell phone, my parents could not reach me nor could they verify where I was. I roamed the streets or rode my bike around my Washington D.C. neighborhood without the expectation that surveillance cameras would be tracking my movements. Much of what I did was unknown to anyone except me. I had less immediate access to others but they had less access to me as well. I can’t help feeling that the prevalence of surveillance today, with or without our consent, is a loss to society. In my darker moments, I even believe it to be a pact with the Devil.
Victor Margolin, Professor Emeritus of Design History in the Department of Art History of the University of Illinois at Chicago and a founding editor of DesignIssues, is a regular contributor to Design-Altruism-Project.