Technology

A New Look at Big Brother


A former tech exec has produced a new film that examines privacy issues through the impassive eyes of surveillance cameras

There are about 30 million surveillance cameras in the U.S.—inside ATM machines, at traffic lights, in department store dressing rooms. And while such digital eyes are now deeply woven into society's fabric, experts say there's scant public debate over how they should be used. "Unfortunately, most people just don't care," says David Holtzman, author of Privacy Lost: How Technology Is Endangering Your Privacy. "What this issue needs is a Michael Moore to go after the issue and raise public awareness."

Holtzman may have gotten his wish—sort of—in the indie film Look, which opened in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 14. Look is shot entirely from the perspective of surveillance cameras. The footage is fictional, but the angles are common to daily life.

Challenging Complacency

This is no Michael Moore-like advocacy piece. Look takes no sides. The movie tells the story of a group of characters whose lives are dramatically affected by surveillance cameras. At times, the camera plays the hero, assisting in the capture of murderers. At other points, it's negligent—failing to alert police to the car left for days in a mall parking lot, a woman locked in the trunk dying. Always, the camera's power is palpable, as when it catches a dutiful husband in a moment of weakness. "We're not trying to grind any ax," says co-producer Barry Schuler, formerly chief executive of AOL, owned by Time Warner (TWX). "It's designed to be an eye-opener."

The movie is likely to succeed in that mission, challenging the laissez-faire attitude toward surveillance that's emerged since September 11. In a recent ABC News/Washington Post survey, 71% of respondents said they support increased use of surveillance cameras. The results may well be different if taken after a Look screening.

Look's release comes amid rapid advances in technologies that could make it far easier and more affordable to parse footage in ways that compromise privacy further. New cameras equipped with computing power can be programmed to watch for a certain object, face, or even gait. Cutting-edge video-search capabilities, in turn, can quickly scan clips on the Web for other identifiers.

No Legal Guidelines

The privacy implications are enormous. Experts say it's not hard to imagine a day when strands of video could be woven together to re-create large swaths of a person's daily life. Video could also be used to single out whole groups—not just people of a certain ethnicity, for example, but also persons who exhibit nervous habits that commonly presage the perpetration of a crime. Whether deployed by companies, police departments, or intelligence agencies, "It's going to be a huge issue," says Deidre Mulligan, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley. "We wouldn't let a policeman follow you around all day, without a real cause." She notes that some towns have passed laws requiring stores to give police departments access to their surveillance systems.

Of course, the real problem isn't the technology itself but how it's used. And privacy advocates say there are too few legal guidelines to go by. For instance, there's no federal law requiring companies to advise consumers when their privacy has been breached, says Mulligan. Schuler, the producer, says only a few states have passed laws against putting cameras in dressing rooms, while there are few rules or firm corporate policies as to what can be done with the footage. While researching the film, Look director Adam Rifkin found that the cameras in one department store were monitored by high-school kids who admitted to saving clips of attractive girls to personal drives.

Nor are there clear norms governing when it's O.K. to use a cell phone to film a private citizen in public. Some states have laws banning the practice in certain instances—say, to peer down a woman's blouse. But there have been surprisingly few cases brought by private individuals who object to footage of them circulated online, even though it can result in grand-scale embarrassment. Who could forget the public shaming of the woman who came to be known as Dog Poop Girl after she was captured on video refusing to clean up after her dog on the subway? "I don't care who you are, everyone has secrets," says Schuler. "That's what we're losing—the ability to have secrets."

A Techie Turned VC

Schuler's concerns over privacy culminate a personal journey. As a PC geek in the late 1970s and a Silicon Valley entrepreneur in the 1980s, Schuler was a champion of the unbridled use of technology. But his views evolved after his company, Medior, was purchased by AOL at a time when AOL was the main vehicle for introducing consumers to the Internet. He saw first-hand the emergence of a whole new class of privacy issues, from credit-card fraud to the creation of cookies, the bits of code that track users' Web-surfing habits. By the time he left in 2002, he'd come to see privacy from other angles as well. A few times a year, AOL's legal department would hand him videos of employees caught in acts that were illegal or violated company policy.

Now he's not sure that unfettered deployment of technology is all that good an idea. As a venture capitalist with Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Schuler now sees both the possibilities and the drawbacks of the powerful technologies pitched his way. Other than having a firm belief that consumers should always be told when they're being watched, he doesn't claim to have all the answers. But he's so intrigued by the questions that he's already planning a sequel to Look, called Look Again. The follow-up film will focus on the personal information people give away on the Net. It's another wrinkle in his larger concern: "All of this technology is getting away from us."

Burrows is a senior writer for BusinessWeek, based in Silicon Valley .

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