The Eyes Have It: Social Surveillance in a Digital World

We live in a voyeuristic society…an age where news has gone from being informative to entertainment, and where society needs to see it to believe it. Gone are the days when criminal activity operates in a cloak of secrecy; where cases can hinge on eyewitness testimony and be tainted by memory, time or prejudices. Now, the experience is as equally important as the facts.

We now live in a digital age where virtually everyone carries a phone everywhere to call for help, a video camera to retell the story and become a voice recorder narrative.

Much of the media content shown during news events is publicly provided. The public can be places that news crews cannot; in the epicenter, at the eye of the storm and the heart of the matter. Amateur video footage has surfaced showing passengers in life jackets on the Costa Concordia being told to return to their rooms although history has now shown that the ship was sinking. Indeed, much of the video shown in news clips — from natural disasters to crimes in progress — are derived from amateur video. Take for instance footage of the 9/11 disaster or the tsunami in Japan.

When violence occurs, thefts take place, unwanted harassment or threats are uttered, this silent sentinel can provide the proof needed to bring the investigation to a successful resolution. Take for example the recent G20 and Vancouver riots. Amateur video combined with an inherent desire to do the right thing provided enough evidence to document what took place, who the culprits were and the extent of their involvement. The evidence incriminated both the public rioters but also the police who were there to uphold social order.

There is even a new term in our urban slang, `digi-necker’, which succeeds the term rubbernecker and refers to a driver who slows down when passing an accident to take a picture of the scene with a digital camera.

Video technology also has formalized benefits. Preventative solutions such as DriveCam, which has cameras installed in over 150,000 vehicles to monitor driver behaviour by watching both the driver’s actions and the road environment can help to protect companies against liability in accidents and provide corrective measures when driver’s are found to be at fault. Taking this a step further, there has also been the suggestion that the public police itself by being able to call into a national reporting centre to report poor driving behaviour. Based on the number of calls received regarding a particular licence plate, fines are levied accordingly.

Police in England have installed dozens of cameras on city streets to curb crime. It is reported that the average person there is videotaped publically 2550 times per year. Casinos now also have cameras with face recognition software to identify criminals before they have an opportunity to commit their crimes. Police dash cams capture evidence both through video and audio recordings.

These factors combined with social media such as Facebook has reached a new brand of social consciousness, helping to bring criminal enterprises to their knees. Gang members displaying photos of themselves with guns and drugs in their Facebook accounts, or posting videos of their crimes to YouTube have been brought to justice through the very evidence they posted online.

The bottom line is, no matter where you turn, no matter what you do, chances are there is a camera watching you or available to document your actions. What does this mean in the workplace? In a word: accountability. There are both positive and negative considerations. Firstly, you must always operate with the belief that everything you say can and is being recorded. Through one-party consent law, it is perfectly legal to surreptitiously record someone without their knowledge as long as you are present and part of the conversation. Secondly, by encouraging an honest workforce you are also recruiting a security force equipped to bring closure to a myriad of negative factors such as theft, harassment, workplace violence, fraud and corporate espionage. Many workplaces have a no-phone policy which restricts bringing their phones onto the work floor however, in doing so, they may be shuttering one of their most powerful allies.