Monday, 24 September 2007

Technology turning citizens into spies

Actually, this may be no bad thing. Although the warning is of course about "false or malicious postings" that can happen without any surveillance equipment at all. And there is always the easy way that pictures can be doctored or cropped to produce a false impression - in the way that the advertising and entertainment business does all the time. Even supermodels get the electronic equivalent of airbrushing.

But I think citizen surveillance is actually a good thing. Jane Jacobs first noted this as "eyes on the street". In cities which work properly, the neighbours sit out on their "stoops". In public places which are safe and attract lots of people there are many who simply go to "people watch". In many societies we recognize the cultural value of the "paseo" - and that certainly sounds more valuable than "hangin' out at the mall".

I have a proposal which may well help reduce road rage. The cause of which is the daily evidence of the unpunished behaviour of the "scoff laws" who treat the roads as their personal domain and care not a fig for anyone else or any regulation. A simple device to control this is not more policing or more traffic cams - but a camera mounted in the nose of a vehicle. This is already done on London Buses to keep cars out of bus lanes. How about a camera mounted where your car maker's logo now sits? With a button on the steering wheel. You see something, you push the button and either a high definition, evidence quality image or short length of video is transmitted. You do not get the opportunity to play with it. With the image goes your data - a gps system pinpoints where the image was taken, and the i/d of the vehicle on which the camera is mounted. The image gets displayed on a web page. With the registered information of the vehicle(s) involved. A database logs the incident and "frequent flyers" get some follow up from the fuzz. The web page is public, since what happened was in the public domain where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.

The video uses the same technology as the black box - continuous recording but only the minutes around the button push get transmitted at the button push. That should be enough to establish context. Road rage occurs because our sense of justice is offended. The driver who gets cut off in traffic feels the urge to retaliate. That is where the danger starts. The camera satisfies that urge. The instinct to push the button is limited by the consequences. Irresponsible use can also be followed up, if needs be.

This is not "spying" - it is called civic responsibility. It does not provide complete surveillance but it does allow us to do something. When I saw a purse dipper working the crowd in Oxford Street, I did not perform a citizen's arrest. But I did manage to not only confound him but warned the target to close her purse and keep it closer to her body. When I saw a hit and run, I recorded the license plate number on a piece of scrap paper. This just makes it a whole lot easier for "us" and harder for "them". Who, of course, are "us" too

No comments: