Security Cameras

Why Are Security Cameras Watching Us?

Installations of security cameras are exploding around the world. We are headed to one billion cameras by 2021, according to research company IHS Markit. One way to measure penetration of security cameras within a country is by the ratio of people to camera and by this measure, the top five countries are China, USA, Taiwan, the UK and Ireland, and Singapore.

One of the interesting questions is what all these cameras are being used for. As the article in The Verge notes:

In China, most cameras are installed for the purposes of widespread video surveillance of cities, whereas cameras installed in the US are primarily for the purposes of retail and commercial usage. 

This gets to the heart of the issue: why are all these cameras watching us? And here we see an important contrast between a market-driven society and an authoritarian society. In one case, the cameras are looking out for the interests of business and in the other the interests of the government.

Security cameras are a special form of sensors for taking in data. While cameras are used for observing lots of phenomena, one of their favorite targets are humans. In short, cameras are a type of sensor for taking in data about human behavior. Security cameras are a special application of cameras, where the front-end sensor ties into machine learning and automation aimed at controlling that human behavior.

The question, then, comes down to what the entities behind the cameras want from that control. In market-driven societies like the U.S. profit is a powerful underlying code. Security cameras help prevent shoplifting, vandalism, and risks to stakeholders in the business. In authoritarian societies like China, government control is the underlying code. It helps dissuade dissidents from protesting and more generally observes the behavior of individuals that the state believes to be a threat.

The underlying goals of a system play a huge role in its function and impact on the world. You can think of it as a kind of “code within the code.” And it explains a lot about what we can expect from the new monitoring capabilities of all these new security cameras.

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