Spying on Your Neighbors for Fun and Prizes

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The 4.3 million surveillance cameras keeping an unblinking watch over the United Kingdom have sent civil libertarians into fits, kicking up comparisons to George Orwell’s 1984. So far, however, the ubiquitous closed-circuit cameras (CCTVs) have failed to produce a state of totalitarianism. According to the Washington Monthly (Nov.-Dec. 2009), “the practical effect on a person’s behavior is negligible.”

Rather than preventing crimes, the cameras have proven most helpful in catching perpetrators after crimes have been committed. The army of cameras is too disjointed, for now, to provide any central control. And police aren’t trying very hard to link them up, either: “Perhaps because bureaucracies in the UK are mighty forces for inefficiency and inaction, perhaps because abuses have been reined in by good English common sense, the cameras have been deployed in a largely benign way,” the Washington Monthly reports.

This disjointedness may not last for long, however. Especially if websites like Internet Eyes (www.interneteyes.co.uk) catch on. The site aims to put crowds, rather than the government, in charge of the surveillance. The Calgary Herald (Nov. 16, 2009) reports that Internet Eyes hopes to turn nosiness into a game in which anonymous users try to spot shoplifting or vandalism on CCTVs, and then report the crimes for possible cash rewards. Businesses would pay $32 per month to be monitored and viewers would have a chance at a $1,600 reward for reporting the most offenses in a month.

“This is a private company using private cameras and asking private citizens to spy on each other,” privacy activist Charles Farrier tells the Calgary Herald. Rather than fearing the all-knowing police state of 1984, perhaps privacy advocates should worry about the next iteration of reality TV.