By Don Peppers and Martha Rogers, Ph.D.
The notion of a surveillance society -- while not new -- is taking on a greater urgency in the post-Sept. 11 era. Preventing terrorism is an acceptable trade-off for many citizens in big cities who grudgingly accept that cameras are everywhere, recording their every move. But the technology that already is transforming many technologically progressive countries into surveillance societies is the cell-phone camera. Everybody carries one.
These concerns are not entirely novel. One of the most racially charged incidents in recent American history, the Rodney King beating, was captured surreptitiously by an onlooker armed with a video camera. In recent years, video cameras -- including those built into cell phones -- have captured everything from road-rage incidents to teachers railing against their young students to ostensibly private moments in the bedroom. Taping the act is just the beginning of the damage. Consider, for example, sites that are proliferating on the Internet that "out" people publicly, such as Who's A Rat. The site, which bills itself as "the largest online database of informants and agents!," has the ability to irreversibly harm people's private lives -- and in some cases, may even prove deadly.
"All these systems and personal cameras everywhere, in the past you would have heard an outcry about them and about how invasive they are," said Kyle Spector, an analyst for DC-based futurist firm Social Technologies. "Now, there's less pushback. We're used to being surveilled in our private and public lives, and everything that comes with it. There's less shock each time something else is rolled out where privacy is lost."
Asked whether we exist in a surveillance society, Alan Chapell, president of privacy consultancy Chapell & Associates, responds, "The ship sailed three to five years ago, when it comes to having some expectation of privacy. When you're in public, you're really, really in public. You almost have to assume that you'll be filmed and, in some cases, see yourself later on the Internet."
In many cases, "later" may mean a matter of minutes, and a couple of clicks, after subjects capture the footage. Technology now allows amateur surveillance experts to transfer clips straight from their phone to the Web.
Fred Cate, a professor at the Indiana University School of Law-Bloomington and Director of the Indiana University Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research, doesn't worry about incidental appearances on randomly shot footage. "People don't just set out to invade privacy for the hell of it," he said. Rather, the real concern is the "targeted" uses of cell-phone cameras, he said.
"Think about areas that are intrinsically sensitive, like bathrooms or locker rooms," Cate said. "How do you convince people to leave their cell phones by the door before they enter? Once they're in, it's almost impossible to administer a system in which privacy is protected."
There obviously are advantages to surveillance when camera-phone users capture police abuses, for example. At least in theory, there is a deterrent effect when would-be miscreants fret that they're being watched.
The effect on trust may not be as profound as some might expect. When individuals realize that they are constantly being surveilled, will they make a conscious decision to keep their guard up at all times?
"As with all new technologies, we'll get used to [the possibility of being on camera] and stop thinking about it before too long," Cate said. "Ten years ago, who would have thought that we'd be getting searched at airports? Everybody seems to have accepted that, which is invasive on an entirely differently level."
Spector agreed, and offered a comparable analogy: "Just look at what's happened with email. No matter how many stories have come out about embarrassing things that somebody wrote going public, people are still writing them. They haven't changed their behavior."
Technology could soon intensify the concern felt by those already worried about their privacy in the camera-phone era. Cate mentions a Sweden-based firm that has figured out how to apply facial-recognition technology to Web images. This means that the government could ostensibly take an individual's digital driver's license photo and match it up with Web photos that otherwise might have remained anonymous.
"Politicians running for office in 50 years -- they'll have had their entire life surveilled by people around them," Spector warns. "The real question is if and how our values will change when even more information is out in the open."
Chapell isn't entirely swayed. "There are cell phones and government security cameras, and then there are massive databases out there and information on Facebook and so much else," he said. "Really, the only way to live your life is to assume that everything you do is out there somehow. You just hope that people who are intelligent will look at the big picture and the totality of the information."
You can reach Don Peppers and Martha Rogers at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.