Is our video and surveillance culture going too far?

Cockpit cameras: An invasion of privacy?
Cockpit cameras: An invasion of privacy?

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Story highlights

  • David Zweig: Video and surveillance issues regularly in news recently
  • But questions should be raised about expanding surveillance, he says

David Zweig writes regularly about the intersection of technology, media and culture, and is the author of "Invisibles: Celebrating the Unsung Heroes of the Workplace." You can follow him @davidzweig. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)Last week's headline-making incident in McKinney, Texas, was merely the latest in a string of confrontations between the police and minorities. But while there has been much talk about what was shown in the video -- an officer throwing a female black teenager to the ground and unholstering his gun following a pool party -- there has been much less discussion about the fact that the video existed in the first place.

For a start, the pool party video cannot be seen in isolation, especially as news stories pegged to cell phone videos are increasingly commonplace. But a series of very different, but still related, recent headlines have started to shine a light of the broader issue of videos and surveillance.
David Zweig
At the beginning of June, for example, Congress allowed provisions in the Patriot Act that had given the NSA authority to collect telephone metadata to expire. About a week before, news broke came the announcement that Amtrak would begin installing cameras in its locomotives to monitor engineers following a derailment in Philadelphia that killed eight people and injured hundreds more.
This new piece to the Amtrak puzzle felt inevitable. After all, following nearly every public accident or crime these days there seems to be either a call for the introduction of cameras, or else relief that a bystander had a camera present during an incident.
Yet while it can undoubtedly be beneficial in some circumstances to have cameras present to deter certain bad behaviors, or as for forensic evidence, it's time for a wider discussion about some of the costs of the increasingly pervasive use of cameras for surveillance in our society -- by both the authorities and citizens.
The reality is that cameras are not the panacea they're often made out to be, not least because the camera can, as they say, lie -- lighting, distortions of distance, cropping, and myriad other factors affect how accurately an image or video reflects reality.
The French auteur Jean-Luc Godard once said "Every cut is a lie," which has become a truism for filmmakers, including, notably, documentarians. In her famed treatise "On Photography," Susan Sontag wrote: "the camera's rendering of reality must always hide more than it discloses." More recently, in a brilliant series of investigative pieces a few years ago in The New York Times, documentarian Errol Morris explored the veracity of famous photographs.
So we need to at least challenge our impulse to believe that image equals reality.
And even if the images captured are accurate, that doesn't mean their value trumps all else. Take the repeated, recent example of calls for all police officers to wear body cameras. There have been numerous instances of what ostensibly appeared to be police misconduct caught on camera, only for there to end up being no conviction of the officers.
Indeed, our reliance on body cameras as a cure for police misconduct may be diverting attention and resources away from other solutions that actually get at the root of systemic problems -- lack of education and opportunity for certain communities, income inequality, etc.
Similarly, while installing cameras in train locomotives can help with the forensics of a crash, paying to install cameras in the trains diverts funding from measures that could actually prevent an accident, as Tim Sparks suggested recently in New Republic.
True, conspicuous cameras in stores, public places such as arenas and libraries, and of course city streets -- London and New York notoriously are pocked with them -- may deter crime, or at least help with investigations after the fact.
But we mustn't ignore the fact that the pervasiveness of surveillance cameras, in addition to regular citizens filming with their own cameras -- so-called sousveillance -- presents some serious privacy concerns.
Cameras not only record the intended subject, but often capture others as well. Questions about where the footage will be stored, for how long, how secure it is, and how it may ultimately be used are far from settled in most circumstances.
An editorial in Canada's Globe and Mail on police use of cameras noted that the police force in Calgary plans to "combine them with facial recognition software." And that "the move could turn every officer into a mobile, closed-circuit camera, hooked up to a database tracking and recording people's movements across the city."
It is not even clear what effect the cameras have on behavior. Though some studies have suggested the introduction of body cameras has led to a reduction in the use of force, it is too early to draw firm conclusions.
And it is also worth considering that self-censorship of seemingly "bad" behavior -- that the presence of cameras ostensibly curbs -- isn't always positive. For example, people may be less likely to congregate for perfectly lawful protests against the state out of fear that they will be filmed, and that the film could be used against them in some way. Conversely, when citizens are filming each other or the authorities that in no way guarantees lawful behavior.
To be clear, cameras are an incredibly important tool in providing evidence of crimes or in determining causes of accidents. But with their pervasiveness today, both from top down surveillance by authorities and bottom up sousveillance by the citizenry, we really need to start a conversation about whether this is a path we want to keep walking.