Primal Numbers – Prying Eyes

Have you ever had the odd sensation of someone watching you, even when there’s nobody there? The good news is that it’s probably not a ghost. The bad news is, you’re probably under surveillance by one of the growing number of cameras that track our every move?even in our own homes. Are they a way to keep us safe, or just an invasion of privacy?

Sixty years ago, cameras in department stores were still something of a novelty. Large signs announced that shoppers were being filmed, and some stores even invited customers in to experience the thrill of seeing themselves on a TV screen (as a way of selling more televisions, of course).

Fast forward to 2014 and it seems there’s no escape from the prying eyes of a camera. They’re on our laptops, our phones, and our dashboards. We capture adventures with cameras strapped to our helmets, and we no longer notice the dozens of small black domes mounted everywhere in malls and offices.

We even pay for the privilege of having security cameras installed in our homes, and the public spaces in most major cities are monitored with a network of CCTV cameras. London, England, has long been a leader in CCTV coverage. As this Telegraph article reports, one estimate placed the total number of closed-circuit cameras at almost 6 million in 2013.

In Toronto, police began using CCTV cameras in 2007, and they’re just one small part of the global surveillance industry. According to this Fortune article, the video surveillance market will have more than tripled over seven years, “from $11.5 billion in 2008 to $37.5 billion in 2015.”

But how did we get here? How, in just a few short decades, has it become normal to live our lives under almost constant surveillance?including home monitoring systems that allow us to view our families as they come and go through the front door remotely?

Some of it is convenience. After all, it’s far more cost effective to guard against shoplifting by having one or two employees watch a row of screens than it is to have staff patrol every aisle in a large store. And dashcams can be an invaluable witness in the event of an accident, saving hours of wrangling with your insurance company.

Fear plays a large role too. Fear of the imaginary bogeyman, or the very real terrorists that bomb marathon runners and busy subways. Home monitoring ads use fear to sell parents on installing cameras that alert them the moment their children get home. National security agencies remind us that videos help identify terrorists, while police cite the value of deterring criminals.

There’s truth in all these scenarios. As the same Fortune article notes, “law enforcement used closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras” to identify the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing. Common sense says that thieves and vandals are less likely to commit crimes when they know their faces could soon be trending on Facebook or YouTube. And knowing that their children have gotten safely home no doubt eases the worries of countless parents.

Opponents, though, make a good point when they raise privacy concerns. We should, as members of a democratic society, expect a certain amount of privacy. We should feel free to move about unhindered, without our every move being tracked.

Yet how much privacy is really being invaded by cameras? Walking down the street, sitting in a restaurant, waiting at your doctor’s office?every day, anywhere from a dozen to a few million people see you everywhere you go. It’s not as though cameras are stripping away some sort of invisibility cloak. Most of our public ramblings are obvious for anyone to see.

The difference, of course, is that neighbours and passersby don’t film all those movements and store the footage in databases. Few people pay much attention to the person at the next table beyond a fleeting glance, and it’s rare to recall anything about who stood behind us in line at the grocery store.

But the fact remains that the discussion around privacy and security cameras is like the adage of closing the barn door after the horse is gone. Having our movements filmed pales in comparison to the privacy we’ve already freely given up.

Birthdates, bank accounts, medical records?all these and more are cross-referenced and stored in databases that span the globe. Our credit and loyalty cards leave a minute-by-minute paper trail for governments or corporations to follow. We hand over email addresses and write blog posts about our jobs and families.

And if we’re really that worried about photos and videos revealing our whereabouts, we wouldn’t post millions of them on social media sites every day with metadata that pinpoints our location. For an amusing yet unsettling look at just how public that data is, check out I Know Where Your Cat Lives, a site run by a Florida State University professor.

Prying eyes? Yes, we’re surrounded by them and they’re not going away anytime soon. But when it comes to life in a surveillance society, we’ve already opened the window to our souls.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.