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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7 thoughts on “Why Are Security Cameras Watching Us?”

  1. The border between surveillance for marketing and for political control isn’t particularly meaningful.

    For example, TargetSmart, founded by former members of the Obama Campaign tech teams, has assembled a database on every American voter and joins it with whatever additional information it can, much of it derived from commercial marketing sources.

    Political interests, whether the central state, foreign governments, or individual parties use commercially extracted information to shape the boundaries of our politics, as well as to persuade or suppress voting. This information eventually enters the crime analytics industries, influencing the arrest, sentencing and release of populations.
    China might just be more upfront about the limits of free will compared with American mythologies.

      1. Of course. Not complete, of course. Charlie Warzel is doing good stuff in the domain, as well.
        Lots of stuff to say about targeted analytics if you want to start a thread on that and the synthetic “intelligence” that’s mutilating our society. Cheers!

  2. Besides security cameras, cameras in general are now everywhere, from police body-cams, to cell phones, to home security cameras. It is amazing now, while watching the news, that most every event is on video. We recently installed a Ring Doorbell. What an amazing thing that is, recording motion from a long distance, excellent video quality, all events recorded. And, of course, one reads about the hidden cameras in some of the AirBnBs. I wonder how much of our actions are now affected by the realization that most everything is now caught on video. It’s no longer just Big Brother watching you, it’s everybody!

    1. That’s an important reminder, Bill. These cameras can be watched by anyone. So in addition to surveillance there is also “sousveillance.” That’s when the observed becomes the observer. Ultimately, it comes down to how the system is set up and who has the control. I wonder, for example, if Ring would ever succeed in China — and if so, whether the resulting feeds would need to be monitored by the state.

  3. Every action invites a reaction. I expect technology to now provide a way of resisting being monitored. Example: police speed monitoring radars, and radar sensors.

    1. Very true. The exceptions are where the law prohibits the countering tech (which doesn’t make it go away, but just raises the stakes of using it) and when there are monopoly forces at work that prevent it (example: what do you do with Facebook monitoring your moves on its platform?).

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