Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Transparent CCTV

2 men charged with voyeurism after they allegedly used CCTV to spy on a woman going to the toilet, and undressing in her bathroom. Ironically, their actions were caught by a CCTV camera in the CCTV monitoring room, lending hints of an answer to that age old question, "who watches the watchers?"

There are 2 - closely-related - "feedback" aspects of Bentham's Panopticon that tend to get ignored in its usual mentions, but that are mentioned by Foucault in Discipline and Punish.

First is that the "observability" inherent in the architecture/technology makes it easy for anyone else to assess the performance of the system, and to judge not just its effects, but also the actions and efficiency of the "director" (as Foucault puts it) - the watcher, in this case. (p.204)

Secondly, this "transparency" relies on the idea of "accountability", which can be thought of as an institutional choice to allow external observers (the "meta-watchers" here) unrestricted and, more importantly, unexpected access to observe the system at work. (p. 207)

This overall concept of "accessibility" is vital to the functioning of a surveillance society. To see 2 people being picked up on it is encouraging, but unless we confront the debate surrounding it, how can we tell that abuse isn't rife within the system as a whole? If this access is selective (defined according to how easy it is for the monitors to know when their action is being watched, regardless of who may be watching) then there are obvious holes. Similarly, if limited parties are allowed to watch over the system (without, necessarily, watching the content being recorded) then how do we establish a line of trust towards them?

The problem is recursive unless accountability measures are put in place - preferably at an early stage in the chain.

It's also worth noting that many CCTV cameras are directional surveillance, compared to the truly ubiquitous nature of the Panopticon set-up. This has an effect for both the subjects of monitoring (as they can - possibly - tell which direction a camera is pointed in) and the meta-watching (as it's easier to tell what the watcher is looking at - more difficult in a "static", omni-directional system). Either aspect of this will gradually "resolve" as we progress,

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