Thursday, April 10, 2008

Forget Big Brother.. Bring On The Collective

Everyone this week seems to be blogging about the city government handing the reins to DC's approximately 5,200 closed-circuit cameras over to MPD. I read the story first in DCist and made a comment there, sort of tongue in cheek, that they should just put the cameras online for the world to see.

I say sort of tongue in cheek, because even though it seems unlikely this would ever actually happen, I actually think it makes sense. Now, I am no fan of government watching of the daily lives of citizens. Unfortunately, that is reality. There are more than 5,000 cameras in this city. Think about that number. They all may have been intended for different purposes, but in the end, there is a video record covering activities in huge parts of this city.

At the present time, these don't do much except possibly provide evidence if one of them happens to capture a crime. But the quality is pretty poor and history shows that this data has rarely been used to succesfully prosecute a crime. So why couldn't they be used to help prevent a crime?

Commenter Mike Licht on DCist responds to a question from the above DCist story:

Do they have thousands of screen watchers on staff? Hundreds? Dozens, even?

I asked an Assistant Chief about this last month. She told me the MPD actively monitored hot-spots "as other duties allowed" (or words to that effect).

Clearly, few of the cameras are actively monitored, making the network effectively useless for crime prevention. So, we've already sacrificed our privacy to a permanent video record, yet they serve little purpose as far as intervening in crimes in progress. There is no question that the resources involved in monitoring all these cameras effectively would be enormous and impractical to implement.

So I say open the floodgates. Give everyone access to real-time video feeds from these cameras and let REAL community policing begin. First of all, the entertainment value would be enormous. What could be better than being able to flick through video from cameras in your favorite places of interest in DC? It would be a lot more fun than looking at traffic cams. Neighborhoods could organize feeds in their area and coordinate volunteer efforts to watch the most troublesome spots.

Finally, voyeurism is a basic part of human nature. Who doesn't slow down to rubberneck an accident on the side of the road? This puts that sinister human trait to effective use. I am willing to bet that with no active coordination whatsoever, hundreds of people would be looking at feeds at any given point in time. If something happened, the chance of it being seen by someone who could call the cops is pretty good.

And what is the downside? We are already being taped. There's no real expectation of privacy in a public space anyway. You can sit in your house and watch a streetcorner through the window, or you can watch it online.

I have no idea what the legal implications might be, but given that the cameras are already there and rolling, I see no reason why the world shouldn't be able to tune in.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My biggest concern is that I might be caught on camera doing something embarrassing (adjusting underwear, something of that ilk) while a crime is ongoing unbeknownst to me because I'm generally oblivious and then the tape ends up being like the OJ White Bronco tape, and there I am on national tv, trying to de-wedgify my underpants. You know? I should have a deeper concern, but I'm focussing on the superficial here.