Swivelchair holidays in the global Transparent Society

Paul Raven @ 12-01-2011

It’s been a while since it cropped up last, but regular readers may well remember my fascination with David Brin’s Transparent Society. My (and Brin’s) principle objection to the proliferation of surveillance cameras isn’t that they exist, but that they’re private; if they were publicly accessible to anyone, the panopticon suddenly inverts itself into something a lot less sinister. (Or simply sinister in a different way, I suppose, depending on your personal politics of privacy.)

By definition, closed circuit surveillance can’t be viewed by anyone without a physical connection to the device. But CCTV is being rapidly outpaced by networked IP cameras, accessed via the internet… and as this Ars Technica piece makes clear, a great number of them are simply sat out there waiting for you to log on and watch, although that may not have been the intent with which they were set up.

Finding IP cameras with Google is surprisingly easy. Though the information the search engine provides on the cameras themselves is typically little more than an IP address and a camera name or model number, Google still provides those who know how to ask with extensive lists of IP cameras and Web-enabled surveillance systems throughout the world.

The secret is in the search itself. Though a standard Google search typically won’t find anything out of the ordinary, pairing advanced search tags (“intitle,” “inurl,” “intext,” and so on) with names of commonly-used cameras or fragments of URLs will provide direct links to watch live video from thousands of IP cameras.

Good harmless fun, right? Well, not necessarily:

Though accessing public cameras can be fun and is essentially harmless, it’s impossible to divorce the voyeuristic aspects of Googling cameras from the innocent ones. Because the majority of the cameras the engine finds are meant for surveillance, most of what’s out there is being used in security applications and is not meant to be seen by others.

This hit home quickly as I worked through my list of search strings and found myself watching daily events at businesses around the world. Though jewelry stores typically use the top tier of surveillance and security gear (and therefore secure it better), I was able to find several boutique stores around the world and watch as customers browsed display cases full of gold and silver. Although just looking at a store online couldn’t cause any harm, knowing when the store is occupied or empty could prove useful to a burglar looking for an easy target, especially if one was able to narrow down where the store was (not a huge stretch with the camera’s IP address to trace).

That there’s the main argument against the Transparent Society: “bad people could use it to do bad things!” Which is true as it stands… but if every camera was open-access, then Johnny Q Burglar could be easily tracked and traced on his way to and from his break-in job using the surveillance devices in the streets around his target.

OK, so that’s a massive over-simplification, but it’s an interesting twist on the sousveillance/participatory panopticon riff; personally, I think I’d rather have a world of open-access cameras (and accept the multilateral loss of a certain aspect of the thing we call privacy) than the alternative: like, I dunno, the sort of privatised surveillance state my own home country is becoming.

What about you lot: would you be willing to accept being surveilled by anyone anywhere in exchange for the ability to do the same yourself?

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5 Responses to “Swivelchair holidays in the global Transparent Society”

  1. Sterling Camden says:

    Your point is well taken, and perhaps that’s where we’ll get to. On the way there, though, I can imagine quite a few neuroses as people learn to relinquish all of their hidden lives. When nobody feels any embarrassment over having their masturbation sessions on YouTube, I guess we will have arrived.

  2. Robert Koslover says:

    1. To answer your question about being watched in exchange for watching: NO.
    2. Seems like the solution to the cameras-on-line problem is for people to simply not employ internet-accessible cameras in traditional CCTV applications. Or, if they simply can’t resist, then to at least employ some decent password-required/encryption scheme. And why does it always seem that security is taken as the least important consideration in both software and hardware design/engineering?

  3. jt says:
  4. SpeakerToManagers says:

    No, I don’t think that attempting to make all cameras accessible to everyone is going to level the playing field. The fact is that the nature of political and economic power is to give privilege to those who hold it; in the case of technological issues it gives them early access to more powerful (and often more secure) technology than is normally available to those without that privilege. Once access to cameras becomes a political issue, I expect that the rich and powerful will find ways to protect and hide the cameras they want to use from the general populace, and the general populace won’t get to use those techniques. This sort of asymmetry will always exist to some extent, so that full transparency in both directions will never be achievable. As an example, consider transparency of communications. Making all communications transparent, i.e. sending everything in cleartext and allowing eavesdropping, isn’t going to be practical, because it allows identity and financial theft to operate almost unchallenged. But allowing encryption (as if you could stop it!) simply gives the advantage to the people with the best encryption and/or the best encryption cracking technology: the ones with the most money or access to organizations such as governments which spend the most money on those technologies.

  5. Antony Gatzow says:

    I expect that the rich and powerful will find ways to protect and hide the cameras they want to use from the general populace, and the general populace won’t get to use those techniques.