While the public is increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of government cameras and Internet snoops recording their daily behavior, Americans seem much more willing to routinely monitoring people, pets, or handymen.

People have had security cameras aimed at garage doors or novelty cameras aimed at ocean views for years. However, cameras that transmit images over the Internet have become significantly smaller and cheaper in recent years, in addition to being easier to set up. This is a natural formula for widespread consumer adoption.

For example, the owner of a pet shop in Michigan has attached a small camera to the shell of a tortoise that receives roughly 10,000 viewers a month. Dropcam, the maker of the camera atop the tortoise’s shell, uploads more than 1,000 hours of video a minute, and is the largest producer of these small cameras. (In comparison, YouTube gets notice for loading about 100 hours of video a minute. ) About 1,500 hours or more every minute is not recorded, but is (presumably) being watched live, according to Dropcam. Further, Dropcam’s high-definition video cameras sell for just $149 to $199, and they can be monitored from most computers and mobile devices.DropCam

In the United States, the number of homes with private security cameras increased by about 5 million last year, to 15 million homes. A similar increase is expected this year. In addition to using the cameras for security, people have found uses for the cameras in monitoring their pets, nannies, and even children.

Ambarella, the company which makes video chips for Dropcam, recently said it was working with Google to produce cameras for field workers to stream their activities back to headquarters. Essentially, everyone who works for Google and deals with the general public will be wearing a camera.

While much of what comes from a private security camera like Dropcam consists of shots of empty rooms and driveways, the sheer amount of private material means that more behavior is being recorded than ever before, and then possibly stored or broadcast across the internet. For example, people have recorded local thieves in action and in one case, a dog turning on a stove and setting a house on fire.

However, with these cameras becoming more prevalent, are we simply privatizing the security state? How will we accommodate the privacy rights that may be violated by this massive increase in surveillance activity? Will it help catch burglars and lower crime — and will that make it worth the cost?

–Brooke McLeod

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One Response to Privatizing the Surveillance State

  1. Erin Frankrone says:

    My friend and I were recently discussing whether she should get a nanny-cam (or several) installed in her house when she returns to work from maternity leave. Besides the benefit of catching nanny malfeasance (Downton Abbey, anyone?), which hopefully will not be an issue, there is also the benefit of seeing your child during the day while you are gone. So assuming your are ready for the nanny-cam, the questions lingers: should you tell the nanny about it?

    Extending this question beyond the home, I’m interested whether companies that will use cameras in their interactions with the general public (like Google, mentioned above) will inform their customers about these recordings. And can customers opt out of being recorded? There are obviously serious privacy implications to consider, as the post above indicates. But I wonder how changes like this will affect customer satisfaction. Will employees engage will customers better because they have been trained with real footage, or will consumers shy away from personal interaction with employees because they don’t want to be recorded? Or will this development just pass unnoticed, like the customer-service phone calls that “may be recorded for training purposes,” whether I want them to be or not?