Every once in a while I’ll be photographing a park or a strip mall parking lot or something of interest to me and this blog when someone will be outraged that I’m taking their photo without permission. I immediately introduce myself, hand them my card, show them the images on my camera, and if they object I delete them in front of them. That usually calms them down. But that got me in the habit of looking around and taking photos of all the other cameras that are embedded in the built environment that are also taking their photo or video at the same time. When I point this out to folks they tend to pause uncomfortably for a moment. Then they usually say something to the effect of, “That’s different”.
I did a casual informal look-see around my neighborhood and realized that from the moment I stepped out my front door I’m being recorded nearly continuously by dozens of different cameras. These cameras are attached to homes, apartment buildings, shops, street poles, and churches. I’m not particularly bothered by any of this. It’s simply a part of modern life.
This isn’t just a city thing. The suburbs are bristling with cameras as well. The streets and gas stations and strip malls are all loaded with panoramic video equipment.
I have friends who work for various technology companies and they assure me that the interior of almost every national chain retailer has all sorts of monitoring systems installed throughout their buildings. It isn’t just security cameras these days. Absolutely everything is tagged with RFID and multiple computer systems are busy keeping track of inventory. Other systems trace where and how customers, employees, and products travel through the store in real time. That information is then cross referenced with credit card data from the check out line to optimize sales and logistics. Again, this is just life in the twenty first century. What are you going to do?
I recently helped a friend install a “smart” thermostat for her home. The computer in the thermostat learns your personal habits over time by collecting data from motion sensors. It makes sure your home is always the temperature you want it to be, but only when you’re actually home to enjoy it. Otherwise it adjusts the heat and air conditioning to maximum energy efficiency when you aren’t home. The same system has an add on with a “smart” smoke and carbon monoxide detector. And of course you can access these devices remotely via your cell phone or other computer from anywhere in the world.
My friend is in the tech industry and has a better grasp of such things than I do. She explained that this company is using the thermostat as a springboard for a wide variety of other home consumer products and services including… security systems. It won’t be long before millions of homes are fitted with some form of interior domestic surveillance that’s streaming live to the cloud. Think of that the next time you’re enjoying dinner at a friend’s house.
Now here’s where things get really interesting for me. As I began to take photos of these cameras throughout the public realm I stumbled on a new set of people who objected to my activities. Five times in the last two weeks someone appeared from inside a building while I was on the street taking photos. They typically demanded to know why I was photographing their camera. Then they make it abundantly clear that they have me on video and (if in the suburbs) that they’ve recorded my car’s license plate number. I go into the same routine as always. I hand them my card, show them the photos on my camera… I then say, “You’re obviously taking my picture and I have no control over that. But here you are objecting to me photographing your equipment.”