Surveillance technology may be the most corrupting and also the most intoxicating media proliferating in these rapidly changing times. Its use is a slippery slope sliding further into the surveillance society.
For example, a school district in Philadelphia has recently been caught spying on its students via cameras installed on laptops. The school board was able to do this through several thousand Apple Mac Books with spyware installed that they distributed to students. School administrators could access and activate the laptop camera whenever they wished.
The justification for including this spyware was that it would be used only if the laptops were stolen. The users of the device would not be monitored, but if they were to report it stolen, authorities would have access to this capability to find out where the device was and who had possession of it.
However, all of this came to the public's attention because, in a totally separate incident, school authorities provided as evidence a photograph they took of a student via a laptop, demonstrating that they had used this capability to spy on the boy. As they started to defend themselves, they also revealed that they had done this on other occasions, to investigate particular students.
This is a great example of the seductive power of surveillance, and the way technology can corrupt authorities. They are approved to use it in one way, but end up using it in others that weren't approved.
This has caused huge outrage across the US (and across the world) and initially the school district tried to defend itself, but once they were served with a lawsuit they finally stopped the spyware program and ceased the surveillance. They continue to insist that they would only use the technology for the location of stolen property, however the lawsuit claims otherwise, as the student insists he was under investigation for his behaviour, and not stolen property.
The real concern this incident raises is whether other school boards are engaged in this kind of illegal surveillance. The power of surveillance is such that if the capability exists people will use it.
Employees for example should be extra careful when using computer equipment or technology owned by their employers who generally have the legal right to monitor their workers. Given the opportunity, employers can find all sorts of reasons to monitor what their employees do so as to improve organizational and individual efficiency.
Yet while we've seemingly accepted the right of our bosses to monitor us when we're working, there has always been resistance to being monitored by the Government. This surveillance relationship that exists between citizens and the state, often manifests through an average person's interaction with law enforcement.
Here in Canada the RCMP (Mounties) have announced that they are testing uniform mounted cameras in a few select communities, with an eye on deploying them nationwide.
Uniform mounted cameras are essentially an extension of the ones mounted in the police cruiser, only instead of recording what the car sees, this device records what the officer sees. This would expand the evidence that is collected in every interaction they have, while also acting as a deterrent against acting inappropriately (both for the officer and the citizen).
The issue then is one of control of the camera. By controlling the camera the authority of the law enforcement officer is reinforced within the context of a surveillance society. However if the citizen also has their own camera, is able to record their own point of view, then it is possible (perhaps) to counter the power of the officer's camera with the power of the citizen's.
For example a related trend emerging in the UK, where they have comprehensive state based surveillance via a massive system of CCTV cameras, is a project called Internet Eyes, which will give the public access to these cameras via the web. The idea is to allow British citizens to act as voluntary constabulary to give the police extra eyes when it comes to fighting crime.
This makes me wonder if the cameras installed on RCMP and police cruisers in general would ever be publicly accessible. I mean they are public servants, what if we could go online, see where the cops are, and then login to their uniform or cruiser mounted cameras and see what they see? Might make law enforcement both more accountable and also more efficient?
I ask these questions because as a society we need to understand the seductive power of surveillance, the intoxication people feel from being the watcher.
The same way we're at a tipping point when it comes to protecting privacy, we're also on a slippery slope when it comes to surveillance.
We need to think a little more about regulating surveillance technology, and recognizing that the surveillance society comes more from little brothers and little sisters than it does from a centralized authority.
I often point to University of Toronto Professor Steve Mann, the world's first cyborg, who invented EyeTap as an example of how bottom up surveillance will overwhelm the system as everyone starts recording their every moment for everyone else to see and do what they wish....