December 08, 2008
SF Street Cams Raise Eyebrows, Entertain
high crime areas. Commercial properties routinely place cameras on loading docks and in parking lots. Government monitors federal and state buildings to keep them safe. All of this seems uneasily normal to a population accounting for terrorism and other mayhem, though there are those who use the metaphor of 1984 to argue against these intrusions.
The United States government faced fierce resistance from advocacy groups and some members of Congress over the Total Information Awareness project. That program intended to examine the population's terrorist capabilities by conducting extensive data mining of private citizen information collected in government databases. No warrants or other Fourth Amendment safeguards would be involved. Congress closed out funding on this in September, 2003. Rather than stopping, however, the government took the data surveillance program a bit underground by diffusing elements of it to various security agencies. So the march of Big Brother continues, albeit a little less visible.
If we are to fear Big Brother, what about Little Brother? That's where the Internet comes in. The San Francisco Chronicle featured the story of Adam Jackson, a resident of the Tenderloin District of that city. Jackson moved to San Francisco from Florida and decided that he didn't like the crime and noise going on outside of his window. He reacted by putting up a web cam and broadcasting the street view over the Internet. Now he has two high definition cameras and microphones on the street running 24 hours a day. The site gets about 80,000 views over three days. Jackson's cameras and site are popular enough to support ads (by Google, of course...need laser surgery?).
Part of the backdrop that makes this interesting (at least according to the article) is that the San Francisco city government is conflicted about the use of the "official" cameras. SF Police apparently rely less on them than private surveillance tapes in timely solving crimes. Reader comments to the story indicate that Jackson's cameras have caught assaults, drug deals, public urination and worse, and people acting generally goofy. They've also caught a lot of normal boring every day activity.
San Francisco has a reputation of being a more politically "sensitive" environment. As such, comments also include questions about the legality of Jackson's setup, and whether it's racially insensitive given the higher concentration of minorities in the Tenderloin. A majority of commentators, however, approve of the site. Jackson says he will help others set up web cameras and sites in high crime areas in return for a cut of the ad revenues.
So it's come to this. Public surveillance for crime has transcended government scrutiny and turned into popular entertainment that generates cash over the Internet. Chicago, where I work, just leased the rights to all parking meters to a private group. Rates will be going up and the meters will be active 24/7. Maybe the police cameras should be next. There appears to be a market for that sort of thing. [MG]