Issues Magazine

Redefining Surveillance: Implications for Privacy, Security, Trust and the Law

By By Katina Michael

Associate Professor, School of Information Systems and Technology, University of Wollongong

Surveillance cameras bolted to buildings have proliferated in recent decades, but the adoption of wearable devices like Google Glass heralds an age of uberveillance.

Surveillance has traditionally been used by law enforcement organisations to keep a close observation on one or more people. Covert recording devices, for instance, are routinely used by police to monitor a person or group of people who are under suspicion for the purposes of gathering intelligence or evidence toward conviction.

The advent of closed circuit television (CCTV), also known as video surveillance, initially meant that police had to keep watch and be vigilant at all times to ensure they caught the criminal in the act, with an ability to give an eyewitness account of the crime scene thereafter in court. Reel-to-reel media recordings were unwieldy and expensive to begin with. However, even as early as 1968, some locations in New York were fitted with CCTV in an attempt to reduce crime hot spots.

On-board storage devices and advancements in computer technology meant that by the late 1990s many businesses had begun to install cameras as a theft deterrent against criminal activity in banks and retail stores. Franchises selling spyware since 2010 have internationally increased in number exponentially, with affordable yet powerful products being manufactured in Asia. Devices that were once costly and required special clearance to purchase can now be bought over the counter or on the internet by everyday citizens. Television shows like CSI and Person of Interest have raised the profile of forensics and modern surveillance capabilities.

Technological Convergence and Miniaturisation

Converging technologies today have meant that simple CCTV cameras bolted onto walls are not the only device that offer surveillance. Police vehicles are now fitted with what has increasingly been referred to as mobile CCTV, and drivers are warned that every police vehicle may be watching at any time. Additional functionality has also been built into the average CCTV system, including motion-detection sensors, remote alerts, time lapse and internet-based operations.

Tiny covert recording devices are now embedded in everyday objects like key fobs, pens and handbags. Street lamp-posts and shopping lighting may also contain embedded image sensors without the knowledge of passers-by. The latter may not necessarily be spying on citizens or consumers but they are gathering data toward energy efficiency.

It is only a matter of time before image sensors and associated software can accurately detect the identity of a person walking down the street via mobile biometric units.

The Complex Sentiment around Surveillance

Most people nowadays ignore the proliferation of surveillance cameras, either because they are desensitised that somebody’s watching or they cannot distinguish a fixture from a surveillance device. People seem to have grown comfortable with devices that are situated in stores, as can be seen from the cute signs provided by some merchants like: “Smile, you’re being recorded” followed by a smiley emoticon. Companies like DisneyWorld are even selling surveillance as a value-added service to their theme park experience, providing a recording of the day’s adventures at their parks that are triggered by a citizen-prompted scan of the Disney wristband against the Mickey Mouse-branded wireless reader.

Today, the surveillance landscape has become very complex. Who’s watching whom becomes a prevalent topic of discussion.

Arguably the most ubiquitous recording capability today is the smartphone. The very act of pulling out your smartphone to take a few snaps or record an event demonstrates not only how attached we have become to these mobile devices but how absorbed humans have become by replaying moments they perceive as meaningful. It is not uncommon for a tourist to see a new city almost completely through a lens.

Debatable, however, is the manner in which we carry on our recording, store these important moments and replay them again later.


Point-of-view has its foundations in film. It usually depicts a scene through the eyes of a character. Body-worn video recording technologies now mean that a wearer can shoot film from a first-person perspective of another subject or object in his/her immediate field-of-view. The term sousveillance has been developed by Steve Mann to denote a recording done from a portable device, such as a head-mounted display unit in which the wearer is a participant in the activity. Some people call it inverse surveillance because it is the opposite to a camera that is wall-mounted and fixed.

During the initial rollout of Google Glass, Explorers realised that recording other people with a head-mounted display unit was not perceived as an acceptable practice even though the recording was taking place in a public space. Google’s blunder was to consider that the device worn by 8000 individuals would go unnoticed, just like the shopping mall CCTVs. Instead what transpired was a mixed reaction by the public – some non-users curious and even thrilled at the possibilities claimed by the wearers of Google Glass, while others were refused entry to premises, fined, verbally abused, or even physically assaulted by others in the field-of-view.

Some citizens and consumers have claimed that law enforcement (if approved through the use of a warrant process) and shop owners have every right to surveil a given place depending on the context of the situation. Surveilling a suspect who may have committed a violent crime or using CCTV as an anti-theft mechanism is now commonly perceived as acceptable, but having a camera in your line of sight record you even incidentally as you mind your own business can be disturbing for even the most tolerant of people.

Wearers of these prototypes, or even fully-fledged commercial products like the Autographer, claim that their buyers record everything around them as part of a need to lifelog or quantify themselves for reflection. Using technology like the Narrative Clip may not be capturing audio or video, but the still shots are enough to reveal someone else’s whereabouts, especially if they are innocently posted up on Flickr, Instagram or YouTube.

Many of these photographs also have embedded location and time stamp data. You might not be meaning anything malicious by showing off in front of a landmark, but innocent bystanders captured in the photo could find themselves in a predicament since the context may be entirely misleading.

Privacy, Security and Trust

Privacy experts claim that whereas once we might have been concerned or felt uncomfortable with CCTV being as pervasive as it is today, we are shifting from a limited number of big brothers to many ubiquitous little brothers through wearable computing. Fuelled by social media and instant fame, recording the “moment” can instantaneously make you famous as a citizen journalist at the expense of your neighbour.

The fallacy of security is that more cameras do not necessarily mean a safer society. In fact statistics, depending on how they are presented, may be misleading about reductions in crime in given hotspots. The chilling effect, for instance, dictates that criminals do not just stop committing crime (e.g. selling drugs) because someone installs a bunch of cameras on a busy pub route. On the contrary, crime becomes redistributed or relocated to another proximate geographic location.

Questions of trust seem to be the biggest factor against wearable devices that film other people who have not granted their consent to be filmed. Let’s face it, we all know people who do not like to be photographed for reasons we don’t quite understand, but that is someone’s right to say: “Leave me alone”. Others have no trouble being recorded by someone they know as long as they know they are being recorded before the record button is pressed. And still others show utter indifference, claiming that there is nothing any longer personal when out in the open.

Often the argument is posed that anyone can watch anyone else walk down a street. These individuals fail in their assessment as watching someone cross the road is not the same as recording them cross the road, whether by design or by sheer coincidence. Handing out request for deletions every time someone asks whether they’ve been captured on camera by another is not good enough. Allowing someone to opt-out “after the fact” is not consent-based and violates fundamental human rights, such as the control one might have over their own image and the freedom to go about their life as they please. It is an entirely different thing if a consumer places a Nest Dropcam device or Amazon Echo device in their own home to record audio-visual activity.

Laws, Regulations and Policies

At the present time, laws and regulations pertaining to surveillance and listening devices, privacy, telecommunications, crimes and even workplace relations may require amendments to keep pace with advancements in head-mounted displays and even implantable sensors. The police need to be seen to enforce the laws they are there to upkeep, not to don the very devices they claim to be illegal. Policies in campus settings, such as universities, also need to address the seeming imbalance in what is and is not possible.

Cameras provide a power imbalance. First only a few people had mobile phones with cameras, but now they are everywhere. Then, only some people had body-worn video recorders for extreme sports, but now increasingly using a GoPro, Looxcie or Taser Axon glasses while still in their nascent stages have been met with some acceptance depending on the context (e.g. for business-centric applications that free the hands). Photoborgs might be hitting back at all the cameras on the walls that are recording 24/7 but they do not cancel out the fact that the photoborg himself is doing exactly what they are claiming a fixed wall-mounted camera is doing to them. But beating “them” at their own game has consequences.

The Uberveillance Trajectory

One has to ponder where to next? Are we nearing the point of total surveillance, as everyone begins to record everything around them for reasons of insurance protection, liability and complaint handling “just in case”, like the in-car blackbox recorder unit that clears you of wrongdoing in an accident? And how gullible might we become that images and video footage do not lie, despite the new breed of hackers that can manipulate and tamper with reality for their own ends.

Will the new frontier be surveillance of the heart and mind? The uberveillance trajectory refers to the ultimate potentiality for embedded surveillance devices like swallowable pills with onboard sensors, electronic tattoos, tags and transponder IDs placed in the subdermal layer of the skin, and even diagnostic image sensors that claim to prevent disease by watching innards or watching outwards via the translucent dermal/epidermal junction.

Let us hope technology will not invade the mind, because we stand to lose our freedom, and that very element that separates man from machine.