August 27, 2009

Who is Watching You? Surveillance in Society

author_janis By Janis Prince Inniss

On the way home from a beach getaway, my husband and I stopped at a national big box chain. I bought about three items including a t-shirt. Later that evening as I moved the shopping bag from that store I noticed that the t-shirt was not in it. My husband had not unpacked the bag and I could not find the t-shirt anywhere. We both recalled that the cashier said that she would put everything into one bag so there was no point in looking for another shopping bag.

Sure that the cashier must have forgotten to include the t-shirt, I called the store. A customer service representative checked to find out whether a ”sweep” of paid for but forgotten items included my t-shirt but that was not the case. When I balked at returning to that location—an hour away from my home—to claim the t-shirt once they found it, I was turned over to another representative. This time, upon request, I gave the representative a number on my receipt and she promised to call after reviewing “the video”. I had no idea there was video that might help resolve this. I know that many stores have video cameras now but I thought they yielded a more panoramic picture, aimed at catching shoplifters.

Within half an hour the representative called back to let me know that upon viewing the video, she saw me pay for the items, and heard the cashier say that she would put them all into one bag. The representative said she saw the cashier put all of the items, including my t-shirt into the bag! None of this explained what had become of my purchase but I was stunned to learn that I had been videotaped so closely and that there was audio. When did I give permission to be on this store’s video? How long will the store keep my image? And can I pop in, give them the number on my receipt, and view it?

The proliferation of security cameras is not confined to stores. Cities like Tampa and London have experimented with recording citizens in public spaces to aid security. In 2001, Tampa police installed 36 video cameras in its nightlife district (Ybor City) to help them find missing children and wanted felons, after using video cameras to support their security efforts for that year’s Super Bowl held in the city. There were signs in Ybor City warning people that the area was under video monitoring but the American Civil Liberties Union described this as akin to being in an (electronic) line-up without knowing it. There were protests against this so-called “face recognition surveillance” in Tampa and after two years the program was dropped—but not before the system falsely identified at least one man as being “wanted”.

When a 57-year old Tampa woman disappeared I sympathized with her and her family. Her son had found her apartment unlocked, but with her belongings intact. Police announced that the woman had bought a bus ticket under an alias and I began to suspect that this was not a typical missing persons case. Soon enough on the news I saw surveillance video of the woman taking the bus from the area of her apartment. And then there was surveillance video of her arriving by bus in Tallahassee. Eventually, according to her family, she called and said she was in Georgia. I have no idea why this woman may have done this, but without warrants for her arrest, apparently she was breaking no laws. Yet, she was being tracked—like all the rest of us in many public spaces that now have surveillance cameras.

On several occasions, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that we do not have reasonable expectation of privacy when we are in public. In private, the court recognizes our expectation of privacy. Outside of the legal arena, where should the lines between public and private lie? Do the needs of society—for crime reduction, for example—outweigh our individual need and desire for privacy? And should it matter that some research shows that video surveillance has no impact on crime? Who should be able to videotape whom in a public space? Now that many cell phones include the video recording feature will our notions of public versus private change? And given that camera operators have been found to focus disproportionately on people of color, and use cameras in a voyeuristic manner when looking at women (the operators are mostly male) are these questions only of concern for segments of the society?

I always feel like somebody's watchin' me
And I have no privacy
I always feel like somebody's watchin' me
Is it just a dream?

This is the chorus of the 1984 hit “Somebody’s Watching Me” by Rockwell (with background vocals by Michael Jackson and Jermaine Jackson). In the 1980s that sounded like a paranoid refrain (or based on the video, a paranormal experience) but may be closer to reality today as you shop, attend a football game, or even run away from home.


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It's funny that you assume they are telling the truth and there really is a video. I once told my students, jokingly, that we had video cameras monitoring them during the exam - and I was shocked to see that many of them seemed to believe me. It could have just been a creative phone rep pacifying you with a little fiction...

this has happened in my school, when i was a sophomore in high school, the school installed 180 new cameras and every hallway and every little corner was now covered. i can understand that its a security helper but having every corner on tape is a little over kill wouldn’t just the entrances and major rooms like the cafe do it?

This is an ambiguous issue... Said cameras are indeed helpful in unraveling thefts, losses and some mystical incidents like the one described here. Usually, I have no problem being taped in a store or a public place, once a clear warning sign is out there to notify me. Nobody watches these tapes anyway, and even if they do, it doesn't seem to raise my coefficient of disturbance :)
By the way, regarding the comment by pnc, it's funny but true - I'm also this kind of "naive believer", tend to take everybody's word for everything automatically, and later proof check it :)

The rep must have been lying, it's a violation of federal wiretapping laws to capture -audio-. A restaurant chain got in big trouble a few years ago because its security system recorded both video and audio.

Could they claim that the customer was given sufficient notice for them to capture audio? I don't know about that - I remember visiting a car lot with a friend about a decade ago and virtually every vertical surface had a prominent sign announcing that people had no expectation of privacy. (I wonder if that applied to the bathrooms as well.) Even at that I don't know if it's sufficient to past the federal law since vision-impaired or illiterate family members and friends may be accompanying potential buyers. Nobody asked us to sign waivers as we drove onto the lot.

I have experienced camera invade myself, I once went on a cruise with my family and my sister and I shared a room on the ship and there was a sign that said do not flush tampons down the toilet she didn’t see it and soon as she was about to flush it a ride light went off and a man on a intercom said do not flush that then we asked maintenance how they knew and it said threes surveillance in every room when you sign papers threes something that says something about that in fine print.

Topic I read and researched: Has technology made privacy obsolete?
In my opinion it has because there really going over board with how much cameras they have every where this scary to think it could be in your home without you knowing because someone you trust dearly could be a peeping tom, or just in general like at school like 89 cameras is not really needed they need to watch and observe who they let buy cameras or something.

big whoop, get over it

for one it may prevent climbing crime rates :for example, if some one robed a bank an automanted survellience system could alert city authorities.

I don't know how the telephone representative would know what she did without actually watching/listening to a video. She was able to repeat exactly what the cashier said to me - information that I did not volunteer. (Even without audio and with the lip-reading, there would have to be a video to review.) I concede that reviewing the store copy of my receipt would tell the rep what items I purchased though.

The purpose of installing video camera in public places is to ensure public safety. Being taped in a public place should be ok as long as there is a clear warning sign there and the rules of viewing the tape is regulated(for example: tapes can only be seen under certain circumstance).

It seems to me that the problem is that these cameras are being promoted under all of their positive aspects. The potential for it being abused or mishandled is huge.

It seems to me that there was a problem with a California traffic surveillance camera and a car running a red light. The city sent the ticket, the still frame photo of the infraction, and the driver of the car to the owners house. The owners wife opened the letter. The woman driving the car was not the wife. The wife filed for a divorce and took him to the cleaners. If I recall correctly, he sued the city for damages and won.

It also seems to me that a certain administration pushed really hard, really fast for a certain Act regarding patriotism. That administration, when questioned about the gaps in the Act related to privacy, said that certainly no one would ever abuse it in those ways. Shortly thereafter, the Act went under heavy revision based on violations of privacy.

There are plenty of pros vs. cons on this. It just seems that we are increasingly driven to give up our rights based on fear. Fear based decisions are sometimes not the best option.

There are good and bad sides to this problem. Sure Security Cameras throughout the city would decrease crime, but isn't it a violation of our personal privacy? I think its fine for businesses to have security cameras in their store. Its a business and they should be trying to prevent and protect what they sell. In public though I don't think its right to watch the publics every movement even if its for good intentions.

I completely understand the use of cameras in public for surveillance, and also understand the usage of that footage for other means as well. The purpose of video cameras in stores are not to invade your privacy, but for security purposes. And since the footage is already available it is my opinion that if the tape can be used to relieve controversy (as in the situation you stated) then it should be used.

I just want to know if you EVER found that shirt?

Honestly, concern over this kind of thing springs from the narcissistic American view that people actually care about what you are doing at every moment of the day--the same reason we feel the need to Tweet about when we are brushing our teeth and going to bed. No one has time to sit down and carefully scrutinize the daily purchases of ordinary citizens, unless it becomes necessary, such as in the shirt incident mentioned at the beginning.

Unless you have things to hide, increased surveillance is in your favor. When your grandmother with Alzheimer's disappears, wouldn't you like to know where to go find her? Or when you realize that the store you manage is losing money like a bad poker player, won't you wish you'd had a camera keeping an eye on your employees?

Who cares if the camera man is checking you out? Take it as a compliment and go on your merry way. The only people who need to be concerned here are minorities who are in danger of being falsely targeted or accused by those who jump to hasty conclusions.

Surveillance is a part of human culture now , it how been given the go-ahead my gov't , so we have lost some rights for the sake of a few goods that may come out of it.

Good job on going back to the store, Janice! I would like to congratulate this store for having a mind to install surveillance cameras to catch shoplifters. What store was that?

I tend to agree that it is not reasonable to expect privacy in public. Most of this footage is of no interest to anyone so if you get caught on camera walking down the street or at the grocery store, who cares? Unfortunately, the video here is down - can it be found on Youtube?

Surveillance now a days is been part of all the people for safety,in fact in Finland many of people installed CCTV in their house for them to surveillance their surrounding which is really good to see those bad guy who have a bad plan.

It's really creepy being recorded without you knowing about it. Stored should have some kind of sign outside that tells that the store is under surveillance.

Perfect ! Good job and great

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