Will distributed snitching make Stasi agents of us all?

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O brave new world, where a Texan sitting at home, looking at a webcam and playing with his Liverpudlian, can fight crime in the United Kingdom. According to this thinly detailed story, a Dallas-based Beatles fan was checking out the action at Liverpool's Mathew Street webam when he witnessed a robbery in progress; he called the local cops, who picked up three suspects at the scene. It certainly exceeds my pretty low expectations of human efficiency that the guy was able to get whatever the Liverpool equivalent of 911 is and get the message over there in time for an arrest, but Jim Anderson has a disturbing take on the incident:

When I read 1984, I always think, How would they ever find enough people to keep track of everyone's everyday movements? When Winston Smith is exercising, for example, he's reprimanded via telescreen for not dipping low enough on a toe-touch. But it would take thousands of people to watch millions of citizens, wouldn't it? Artificial intelligence isn't yet ready for panoptic prime time…

Just like SETI@home, farming out computing power to a grid of otherwise idle PCs, Big Brother could outsource its civic oversight to idle surfers with scads of free time. Problem solved. Somebody call Glenn Reynolds.

This is going to sound like a gussied-up version of Only the Guilty Need Fear, but I don't get that ominous a vibe from this story. Burglary is a crime that actually should be against the law, and swinging Mathew Street doesn't look like a place that meets the judicial standard of an expectation of privacy. If this had resulted in a bust for smoking a doobie or sitting on a milk crate, the chilling implications would be more clear. But even if this case isn't the perfect example, it's possible to imagine the problems that will arise as all the busybodies out there gain more power to get involved in your less-than-savory business.

NEXT: When Will Somebody Stop Thinking of the Children?

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  1. Ok, I’m not up on what, if any, reality tv cops shows are out there still. However this seems like it could be a great interactive crime game show along the lines of America’s Most Wanted meets The Running Man, except in real time. Find someone committing a crime via live video, submit it to the show after calling the cops. The best bust wins.

    I’m not bothered by 1984 chills either. The issue is not being watched, as you are watched whenever you go out into public. It only becomes an issue in my mind when “they” put cameras in places you have some sort of reasonable expectation of privacy.

  2. I doubt that most casual viewers would call in to report sitting on a milk crate, or smoking a doobie.

    I have faith in humanity. There are a lot more of us who enjoy getting away with a little something now and then; there aren’t nearly enough busy bodies to watch all the rest of us.

  3. The ability to move about and engage in economic activity anonymously is largely an oddity of the post-WWII era urban areas. In previous times, (and to a large extent still in small communities) everyone lived in a surveillance society that arose from the more interactive nature of day-to-day life. Even people in large cities lived in neighborhoods which functioned as coherent communities. People worked outside more, left windows open for ventilation, had shops on the street, didn’t have cars etc. It was difficult to move about without someone seeing you. It was hard to conduct business without being part of trust network that used letters of introduction and similar mechanisms to try and verify identity and reliability.

    I think this incident symptomatic of our return to that pre-WWII time. Cameras are already common in phones, laptops and increasingly in cars. Soon a random and rotating set of private cameras will surveil every public area even if only by accident.

    The difference between this and a 1984 scenario is that it will be peer-to-peer surveilling. No centralized authority will hoard the information. Everyone will have more or less equal power to surveil everyone else.

  4. Last time I looked, libertarians didn’t equate reporting criminal acts to snitching. They left that mentality to the urban drug gangs and anarchists. But the way H&R has trended in the last few months, it may very well be that I am the one out of step.

  5. Thanks for the link. Though I have moments of paranoia, this particular post is more of a jab at the Instapundit than anything.

    I’d imagine that if Amazon will pay surfers three cents to identify a neighborhood landmark, a government somewhere would be willing to contract out surveillance to the underemployed. “Make money from home! No experience needed!”

  6. all the busybodies out there gain more power to get involved

    I can’t see this becoming a problem. I don’t think wild horses could pry Bozell’s minions away from keeping an eye out for porn on tv, just to focus on more mundane daily street life. Minimum payoff as far as thrills are concerned.

  7. Sci Fi author David Brin has a whole essay on the inevitability of a surveilance culture. He makes the case that it can go one of two ways:

    1. All cameras are controlled and accessed only by the state and police leaving the opportunities for abuse and lack of transparency wide open.

    2. All cameras are viewable and accessable by anyone, anywhere at anytime promoting the ultimate in transparency.

    This seems to me to be a perfect example of the best aspects of notion #2.

    Interestingly enough, I learned about that essay here on H&R.

  8. Last time I looked, libertarians didn’t equate reporting criminal acts to snitching. . . . But the way H&R has trended in the last few months, it may very well be that I am the one out of step.

    Well, it depends on the criminal act. Most libertarians would certainly equate reporting someone for smoking a blunt with snitching. But as for the case in question, did you only read the headline? Mr. C clearly stated “I don’t get that ominous a vibe from this story. Burglary is a crime that actually should be against the law.”

  9. When Winston Smith is exercising, for example, he’s reprimanded via telescreen for not dipping low enough on a toe-touch.

    He is repremanded by a recording that does that every morning…jesus i swear half the people who read that book never actually read that book.

  10. Very cool. This is one reason why cameras are not bad and why we should all have access to them. Robbery is bad. People will be punished for their transgression thanks to cameras. Hooray.

    While I an envision some busybodies calling in pot smoking, I cannot imagine law enforcement rushing over for some crank’s complaint that a couple of teenagers are smoking a doob. Even if that does occur, that is an indictment of our drug laws, not the cameras.

  11. It gets late, and I type poorly. There is an unnecesary “an” in my previous post. The first one to spot it and email me wins a very special prize. Good luck!

  12. So, basically, Tim, you’re OK with public surveilance when it’s when it’s used to enforce laws you agree with, but when it’s used for laws you oppose, it’s an infringement of civil liberties?

  13. He is repremanded by a recording that does that every morning…jesus i swear half the people who read that book never actually read that book.

    No, he’s awakened by a recording. The reprimand when he didn’t touch his toes was personalized; the female exercise instructor mentioned him by name and kept an eye on him until he actually touched his toes as he should.

    Joshua, aren’t you the same guy who a few months ago said that Brave New World showed a society where the government gave people lots of freedom? Jesus, I swear reading skills are in decline.

  14. It is not so much the government watching in public areas but the private businesses (motels, vacation spots, banks, parking areas, airlines, restaurants) that is more concerning. This is not covered by “the freedom of information act”.

    Information could be sold to individuals, private dicks, campaigns, corporations, foreign governments, etc. Private intelligence gathering and blackmail could take on a whole new meaning.

    We many discover that our government is much more civil and controlled than the society it represents.

  15. Jennifer, did you take your Soma this a.m.?

  16. and the decline in writing skills?

    “many” = We “may” discover…

  17. No, Don Coyote. There’s no amount of soma in the world that’ll make me think it’s cute when someone spouts off rank ignorance while simultaneously bragging about his knowledge.

  18. Jennifer,
    For what it’s worth, you’re in for a lifetime of disappointment.

  19. A recent issue of Forbes mentioned a book by a resident of former East Germany. She detailed how stressful life was because you had to break the law in order to survive but you had to be paranoid about your neighbors because they would rat you out in a heartbeat if they saw you getting away with something they couldn’t. She points out that East Germany didn’t need scores of state police to watch everyone – jealous neighbors were happy to do that job for free. Libertarianism is the idea that everybody ought to leave everyone else alone, but keeping your nose out of your neighbors business is contrary to human nature. Aspendougy, Happy Jack, highnumber, your naive faith in the basic goodness of humanity is touching, but if you study history for more than about three seconds you might wise up.

  20. Tim:

    All (ex)-punks and new wavers know the phone code for emergencies in Blighty is 999 – though the EU-wide 112 works, also.

    Sources:

    Nick Lowe’s Labor of Lust, featuring the Mickey Jupp written Switchboard Susan:

    Switchboard Susan won’t give me a line
    I need a doctor get me 999

    Of course, there is the band, 999:

    http://www.nineninenine.cjb.net/

    Hey, knowledge is where you find it.

    Kevin

  21. The cops won’t race over to snatch up a guy smoking a doobie? I don’t think you know cops very well. They will respond immediately and bring a SWAT team, to boot. After all, who knows what the doobie might be laced with? Better that a hundred innocent-until-proven-guilty suspects be shot out of hand than one cop should have to go to the hospital for stitches…

    All that having been said, the increasing use of urban surveillance cameras emphasizes the increasing distance between the populace and the State. The police are very eager to use them to replace the citizen involvement that is no longer forthcoming. They can’t count on snitches and that’s the problem…like the Feds with their pie-in-the-sky “data mining,” they are desperately trying to compensate for the fact that the community they are trying to police distrusts them and refuses to give them more than the bare minimum of cooperation.

  22. I listened to David Brins talk on this at the (Atlanta?) LP convention a couple years back, it was insightful.

    This strikes me more as a technologically extended version of sitting on your porch and calling in a crime to the cops. With the Internet, you front porch is, in theory, extended to the entire world, or at least that part reachable by the net.

    I have no problem with public cameras watching public places, with two provisos:

    One: They are accessible by EVERYONE.
    Two: They are also placed in those areas where the most egregious crimes are committed: Police stations, government buildings and legislators offices.

    As a matter of fact, I think the moment someone takes an oath of public office, a camera should be bolted to their head until such time as they leave office, and we get to watch everything they do and say 24 hours a day. Imagine the consequences!

  23. As a matter of fact, I think the moment someone takes an oath of public office, a camera should be bolted to their head until such time as they leave office, and we get to watch everything they do and say 24 hours a day. Imagine the consequences!

    I’m actually kind of glad that Bill Clinton didn’t have a camera like that on his forehead. There are some things that I simply don’t want to know.

  24. Yah, but imagine the revenue possibilities.

    At a buck a download, Bill Clinton, Jim McGreasy, not to mention the antics of Jack and Jeri Ryan, would eliminate the national debt in a year.

  25. There’s no amount of soma in the world that’ll make me think it’s cute when…

    You’re obviously not using the right Soma

  26. Of course, the fact that it was a “civilian” (to use cop terminology) who had access to the camera would have been even more important if it were a crime committed by police. If only the cameras in the Stockwell Underground Station had been accessible by non-cops, we might know the truth about what happened to this poor guy. Of course, the authorities claim that the cameras weren’t working, and they never lie, so…

  27. So I’m curious what this board thinks about USHomeguard (link to corporate website)? As this USA Today story discusses, the idea is that camera networks would be set up around critical infrastructural facilities around the US. But rather than have a central monitor, people would simply sign up to periodically receive random static photos from the network and asked if any vehicles or people appear in the photo — if a spotter answers in the affirmative, it triggers a higher level scrutinizing process. The spotters would receive a fee for their work. Various verification measures are discussed in the article.

    Big Brother or the Wisdom of Crowds?

    Anon

  28. Crimethink, in New Hampshire it is illegal to tape a cop on duty without his express consent. A landlord learned this the hard way, when the security camera he’d installed after his apartment building was burglarized caught a detective treating his family rudely, and the guy took the tape to the cops and tried to file a complaint. He was arrested. Eventually the charges were dropped, but the cops never did return all the security equipment they’d confiscated from him.

  29. “It is not so much the government watching in public areas but the private businesses (motels, vacation spots, banks, parking areas, airlines, restaurants) that is more concerning. This is not covered by “the freedom of information act”. “

    Don Coyote:

    I share your concern and found this quote on Wikipedia:

    Adolf Hitler said in a 1931 interview: “I want everyone to keep the property he has acquired for himself according to the principle: benefit to the community precedes benefit to the individual.

    But the state should retain supervision and each property owner should consider himself appointed by the state.

    It is his duty not to use his property against the interests of others among his own people. This is the crucial matter. The Third Reich will always retain its right to control the owners of property.”

  30. “He is repremanded by a recording that does that every morning…jesus i swear half the people who read that book never actually read that book.”

    Including, apparently, one Joshua Corning. Reading a book is more than scanning the words with your eyes (amazing, but true!!). Why would Winston Smith be worried about “never show[ing] dismay…never show[ing] resentment” if its all just a recording? Ahh, what Cliff notes have done to the loudmouths and cranks. I at least read stuff before I blah blah blah.

    “‘Smith!’ screamed the shrewish voice from the telescreen. ‘6079 Smith W.! Yes, you! Bend lower, please! You can do better than that. You’re not trying. Lower, please! That’s better, comrade. Now stand at ease, the whole squad, and watch me.’ [Paragraph] A sudden hot sweat had broken out all over Winston’s body. His face remained completely inscrutable. Never show dismay! Never show resentment!”

    Link for the Joshua Cornings of the world

  31. Thank you, Lamar. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who found Joshua’s comment annoying.

  32. Where I live, in Toronto, there are a lot of shootings. Young people die and no one dares talk because the drug lords will kill them. The camera thing sounds great to me! Just stay out of the inside of my house, that’s all: Winston Smith had nowhere to be alone.

  33. your naive faith in the basic goodness of humanity

    Oh, I have faith in my fellow humans, just not in their goodness. To use your example, the East Germans didn’t have bread and circuses to keep them occupied.

    While I don’t doubt that there’s the occasional oddball who would stare at a city street all day, I’m willing to bet that most voyeurs would spend their time searching for criminal acts on beach cams or co-ed dorm cams.

  34. I’m willing to bet that most voyeurs would spend their time searching for criminal acts on beach cams or co-ed dorm cams.

    Anonymous voyeurs, perhaps. But the neighbor who has it in for you even though you don’t even know the guy exists . . . the misogynist who hates you because you forced him to have a sexy thought the other day . . . the parent who hates your kid because his is outshined by him . . . the local who wants your house condemned so he can buy it at a bargain price . . . these people will eagerly look forward to the day they can report you for parallel parking a half-inch out of alignment, or any other such crime.

  35. Jennifer,

    Well, that’ll be a good incentive to get rid of stupid laws, won’t it? But even beyond that, the hypotheticals you mention are just as likely to occur even without public access to cameras. Your neighbor really doesn’t need a 24-hr webcam hookup to be able to see if your car is parked improperly.

  36. Jennifer – those people have always been there. They never needed technology, all they had to do was stare out the window or constantly walk past your house.

    The trouble would start when it’s the weirdo across town, or the country, who partakes in this activity. I just don’t see millions, let alone thousands, interested in spying on parking spots.

    With the advent of reality tv, and the myriad choices on the web, I think the goobers have enough to sate their curiosity these days.

  37. Jennifer,

    Is there a difference being on the Joshua Corning thought police team or someone on the parking space feloney team?

    BTW: You need to move!

  38. Where I live, in Toronto, there are a lot of shootings.

    What are they shooting? I thought guns were banned in Canada.

  39. Happy Jack, I agree that most people would use voyeur cams as they were meant to be used but I think you underestimate the number of narrowminded prigs who think it their purpose in life to make sure everybody is as miserable as they are. Donald Wildmon is a perfect example of Menckens idea that Puritanism is the fear that someone, somewhere is having fun. I also fear the number of people who think you should follow the law even if you disagree with it and only work to change laws you don’t like. Even Neal Boortz has made comments about “tax cheats” – the problem with paying one’s “fair share” is that the IRS unilaterally decides what’s fair – so it is difficult for me to imagine that there won’t be sufficient people watching you just for the perverse pleasure of busting you for not following the letter of the law (ALL of them). As to whether or not cops are going to rush out and bust someone stealing a milk crate, there’s no need to – they have video and facial recognition software and anti-terrorism currency laws; they’ll just take the fine straight out of your bank account.

  40. tombraider,

    What are you talking about? Naive? Study history? We don’t live in East Germany, you numbskull. If cameras are trained on you in public spaces, how can your neighbors narc on you if you aren’t robbing somebody or otherwise comitting a crime? They can’t make stuff up – the cameras are capturing it. Are you worried about the busybodies narcing on teenagers smoking the reefer? Like I said, that is an indictment of the drug laws, not the cameras. Pay attention already. I’m cranky enough at the moment. I don’t need somebody like you who doesn’t pay attention to what is happening at this moment to tell me I am naive and and have never studied history.
    And stop grave robbing, you necrophiliac!

  41. The cops won’t race over to snatch up a guy smoking a doobie? I don’t think you know cops very well.

    You don’t live in an urban area, do you?

    They will respond immediately and bring a SWAT team, to boot.

    No, you obviously don’t live in an urban area. Police around here do stupid awful things, but they don’t send S.W.A.T. to arrest stoners. I don’t think they even really enforce the reefer laws for users.

  42. Abu Nudnik: we have the same problem in New Orleans. They call it the “60-day homicide,” because 60 days is as long as you can hold the guy if you can’t find a witness who’s willing to testify.

    After Katrina, a lot of these guys wound up in Houston. The police there were really confused when they arrested someone and he told them “this ain’t nothin’ but a 60-day homicide.” They started letting the guys talk to Houston-native criminals for a few days before they’d question the New Orleans guys, so the NO guys learned that in Houston, people did actually get tried and sometimes convicted for crimes. Made them more cooperative.

  43. How about parking in a red zone in a city like mine, where the meter maids are on 24 hours a day? How about pissing into a stormdrain when you think nobody’s looking? There are plenty of grey areas. That doesn’t mean surveillance is bad or all the laws or bad. It just means there are grey areas.

  44. Distributed parenting is to be preferred over concentrated governing.

    Peaceful anarchist reporting.

  45. …in New Hampshire it is illegal to tape a cop on duty without his express consent.

    Why shouldn’t you be able to videotape the police? If the cops are innocent, they should have nothing to worry about…

  46. Tombraider – nosy people tend to be parochial. A camera on your street just moves them from the window to the monitor. If they’re watching cam shots from across town and across the country, they can’t focus on their main object of concern, the neighbors.

    Granted, it’s possible for all the nitwits to band together and divvy up shift times for every conceivable camera. However, this scenario only holds if everyone knows each others pet peeves and local ordinances.

    I don’t think Mrs. Kravits will put much faith in some stranger to keep alert for when the neighbor’s cat gets in her garden.

  47. ” ‘Where I live, in Toronto, there are a lot of shootings.’

    What are they shooting? I thought guns were banned in Canada.”

    Yes, handguns are banned in Canada. Which is why only our bad guys have them.

  48. I wish the open areas of my apartment complex had cameras. Perhaps, then, we could convince the jerk dog owners to stop letting their dogs shit all over the place.

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