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?