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In the Future, Will 'Big Brother' Watch You, Or Will Your Neighbors?

BY Nick Judd | Monday, November 15 2010

A recent report to British Parliament found an increasing trend towards crowdsourced surveillance — in which monitoring of cameras in public spaces is left to the crowd crowd. Photo: Zigazou / Flickr

The city of the late 21st century, in one popular imagining, is a sparkling and personalized place.

The vision of the future popularized by movies like Minority Report is one in which people in cities are bombarded by advertisements and experiences as personalized as the ads that accompany a modern visit to Facebook or a well-used Gmail account.

A recent report illuminates what that future might look like if viewed through a sharper lens: A future in which a government sells data on vehicle ownership that is used to personalize billboard ads, or in which unmanned aerial vehicles are used to monitor "antisocial driving," or security cameras are in every pub — and in some cases, it is not the police watching these feeds, but your neighbors instead. These are the somewhat dystopian subjects of a report delivered to British Parliament last week by the U.K. Information Commissioner's Office.

Given the widespread proliferation of closed-circuit TV system usage in the U.K. (although it's here in the U.S., too, like it or not), life across the pond has long been fodder for discussion when it comes to the role of surveillance in local government.

The U.K. report speculates on a move towards "open-circuit television," as opposed to closed — in which the often arduous task of monitoring video feeds is shifted to a crowd motivated by civics, perhaps, but also possibly by game theory:

There is another small but growing trend to crowdsource the analysis of captured data and video images. Early experiments included the Shoreditch Digital Bridge project, mentioned in the 2006 report, which allowed residents of the Haberdasher's Estate in London to see live feed from the video surveillance cameras on their estate. Although the experiment was ended in 2007, others have followed, most notably the Internet Eyes start-up, which operates an ‘event notification system’. They plan to broadcast surveillance footage from paying private business customers on the Internet, with the idea that the public will work as monitors. The public participants interact with this system as a game where ‘players’ gain points for spotting suspected crimes and lose points for false alarms, and monthly prizes are paid out. This particular company may or may not succeed; however, just as early examples of social networking have disappeared or failed, other more robust or different models may well achieve rather greater success. It seems likely that Open-Circuit Television in various forms will gradually replace the old Closed-Circuit model.

The report on Britain's evolving "surveillance society," an update to a 2006 report, surveys the growth of surveillance of people in the U.K. in ways both public and private — ranging from the use of mobile apps by businesses to track the movements of employees, to the increasing ease with which governments can merge data about an individual that has heretofore been siloed in individual databases.

Writing the report for the British government is a panel of academics who have long worked at that intersection of technology, security, privacy and the built environment, meaning there is very much a focus on how citizens interact with Big Brother on a daily basis. It's lengthy, but worth a read.