TOC A very personal point of view Your Turn

October 25, 2011

"German state investigators [are] using spying software capable of turning a computer's webcam and microphone into a sophisticated surveillance device". While covering this interesting story (*), Nicholas Kulish must have thought German vaunted efficiency now extend to popular celebrations. It's Halloween every day over there. Can Greece ever hope to compete?

"Officials have denied employing the software's capabilities of seizing control of computers' cameras and microphones". I do not know about you, but this fails to reassure me as intended. If blindly extrapolating the past into the future was a reliable forecast method, the price of American houses would still be rising today, wouldn't it? Besides what fool would have a feature so tempting it "evokes action films" and never even test it?.

"Still, the program falls short of what the most sophisticated hackers, organized criminals and other thieves of credit card and banking information have at their disposal". Now this is truly scary. What am I to think? If a program qualified as "amateurish" already delivers such features, what will it do a couple of professionalized versions down the line? Hypnotize the computer user into confessing to the police?

And yet, I must confess a certain degree of habituation. Privacy scares are like a drug. We want more than some Stuxnet inspired spy story. We find trite the truth that too trusting consumers are tracked by corporations for the future benefit of clever manipulators. We think of them as version 2.0 of Rupert Murdoch, who fumbled on MySpace and has been caught with, if not his right hand, at least his right-hand man in the cookie jar.

So I am grateful to Erica Goode, who sated my crave for some stronger scare. According to her reporting (**), "the Oakland Police Department is one of hundreds of law enforcement agencies that are trying out the body-mounted video cameras, using them to documents arrests, traffic stops and even more significant encounters, like officer-involved shootings".

You may say. Banks, cities, countless others already mount video cameras on every pole in sight. What if they take policemen as extra poles?

"Some legal experts [...] say that the more video evidence available, the better". If citizens record police misbehavior on their cellphones, why shouldn't police make sure it has its own story to tell? Let YouTube statistics deliver the popular verdict on who shot the best clip.

The law is both clear and murky. "Wiretapping or eavesdropping laws [...] prohibit recording without consent from both parties". Really? Why then does the United States leave it to Germany to prosecute Apple and Google for doing exactly that? And so, willy nilly , we are drawn into what Professor Professor Franklin E. Zimring, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, calls "a photographic brave new world".

It's a tit for tat brave new world. First a few citizen recordings on the police come to light. Second the police protects itself by doing the same on a systematic basis. Third it is every citizen's constitutional right to bear body cameras. As noted by Howard Wasserman, a First Amendment scholar at Florida International University's law school, for the police "to say 'we can have the camera and nobody else can' really becomes problematic".

The upshot is obvious. Once all armed with body cameras, will citizens use them solely when in presence of a police officer? Of course not.

Besides companies will quickly adopt the police line. When you call your insurance company, it already records your interaction with the employee who answers. Soon, when you meet your insurance agent, expect to be captured live on his or her body camera as well. Even though you may not run to become president, better be able to summon a perpetual smile on your face. Better put your potential YouTube audience on your side.

With so many business transactions to keep close to one's chest, people will simply leave their body camera on at all times, like Gordon Brown his microphone. Every encounter, with passers by, colleagues, friends, mirrors will be captured by all concerned from their very own perspectives.

Remember Francesco Guerrera's observation that "most US states [allow] personal surveillance as long as it takes place from public property". So next time you sit at the terrace of some café or restaurant, notice when your neighbor turns towards you while seemingly talking to someone else. You're being taped. Like a movie star, better not forget your aviator shades and flash the bigger smile as you record the one recording you.

"The potential for a sort of permanent embarrassment is a looming presence when everything is filmed", remarks Professor Zimring. Wait till "the pager-sized devices" become more user-friendly. In "action films", the camera would be premounted within everyone's glasses. For those who wear contact lenses, a nose ring might prove the perfect cover. If some people look down their noses at you, smile. They might be framing you just so.

When you become a movie star, privacy is a thing of the past. Every minute of your life is spent acting and you better learn to act the part. The world will be swallowed whole by reality TV.

You smile at my amateurish scare? It may be your own point of view but how long till all Sofitel employees boast of their brand new body cameras?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ... Germans Condemn Police Use of Spyware, by Nicholas Kulish (New York Times) - Oct 15, 2011
  • (**) . Video, a New Tool for the Police, Poses New Legal Issues, Too, by Erica Goode (New York Times) - Oct 12, 2011
October 2011
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