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Some US Cities Are Moving Into Real-Time Facial SurveillanceAfter that, there was no stopping video-based crime deterrence. More than 50 million CCTV cameras now watch over the residents of the United States, and four times as many keep Chinese citizens in check . No surprise, then, that in the past five or so years companies like Nest and Ring have been pushing peace of mind in the form of home surveillance cameras. In 2018, some 50 million of them were sold; research firm Strategy Analytics estimates that four years from now, customers will buy 120 million.
The thing is, these companies have been pushing the cameras as stylish additions to a home. But the attempt to reconcile deterrence with a chic image is bound to have dystopian consequences.
Public surveillance cameras come in two forms. One, shaped like a cylindrical bullet, is pretty easy to see and is pointed at a subject—say a person standing at a bank teller's window—like a shotgun. If the camera is robotic, it can single out and follow a subject or suspect. The second kind, a dome camera typically enclosed in a tinted plastic bubble, is more sinister. People are aware of it but never know who, or what, it is filming.
The home surveillance market, however, is more about friendly design; a security camera that resembles a Nest thermostat or an Amazon Echo is in keeping with the modern, tech-enabled lifestyle. Companies like Polaroid and Hive have even hired sought-after consumer design firms like Ammunition and Fuseproject, whose other products include Beats by Dre headphones and the Snoo robotic bassinet, to design their cameras.One irony here: We are increasingly fearful that our smart-home devices are eavesdropping on us, that hackers can crack into our internet of things for fun and profit, that manufacturers listen in on our conversations. (Earlier this year Bloomberg set off a frenzy by revealing that Amazon employees listen to Alexa audio clips.) These days, to equate our home security cameras with our increasingly suspect home devices may no longer enhance a feeling of peace of mind.
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More important, though, is the conflict with the underlying purpose of security cameras. While footage can be used to alert police to a break-in or to secure a courtroom conviction, the most effective function of surveillance cameras is, say it again, deterrence.Research conducted in the US and UK shows that the presence of surveillance cameras in urban settings caused a significant decrease in property crimes on the streets and in subway stations, and a decrease of 50 percent in parking lots. But for that deterrence to work, criminals need to recognize the device, and the device needs to convey authority. As a research report by Arizona State University's Center for Problem-Oriented Policing states, only an obviously visible security camera has the desired demotivating effect: “For this crime-prevention process to succeed, the offender must be aware of the cameras' presence.” So the more attractive and inconspicuous security cameras are, the less likely they are to impress intruders.
In the short term, discretion may be a shrewd move. In Olean, the camera system was removed when a new mayor was elected. In 1969, The New York Times reported that the mayor objected that it “smacked of an invasion of privacy.” Paradoxically, the near future feels like a privacy invasion much worse than anything Olean's mayor could have imagined, in which discreetly sleek cameras are absolutely everywhere, making us all paranoid prisoners of our own society.