Surveillance Goes Mainstream
posted by:Jeremy Hessing-Lewis // 02:02 PM // June 14, 2006 // Commentary &/or random thoughts | General | Surveillance and social sorting | Walking On the Identity Trail
While researching how the major telcos are bundling their products, I was somewhat surprised to see that Telus has now added retail sales of consumer surveillance products to its online store. There are at least three immediate observations to be made about this development.
1. Web-based video surveillance is now mainstream. While similar products have been available for years, Linksys (a division of Cisco Systems) is a major market player with a variety of high-volume retail distributors. Telus is also prominently marketing these products through the main products page of their online store.
2. Web-based video surveillance is easy to use. Unlike the James Bond surveillance of years past, the Linksys models are ready to run out of the box. According to the product description, the Wireless G Video Camera contains its own web-server and does not require a computer. Just provide power and a nearby wireless network connection and the camera will stream live video (with sound) straight to any web-browser. For mobile monitoring, the camera can notify a cell-phone, pager, or e-mail address whenever the motion sensor is triggered. When operating in "Security Mode," the camera can be configured to send short video clips to up to 3 e-mail addresses.
3. Web-based video surveillance is cheap. Telus offers two models. The cheaper version retails for $99.95 and contains all the basic functionality. For $274.95, the deluxe version includes a motion sensor and microphone.
Such products will likely have significant privacy implications. Their ease-of-use and low-cost will allow a much broader market of users than have previous versions. It is foreseeable that many of these users will devise illicit uses beyond the "home monitoring" described by Telus. As these products continue to shrink in size and wireless capabilities improve, the threat is only likely to increase.
We are left with the recurring question: Does the democratization of surveillance equipment present a threat?
One might argue, as has Steve Mann with the concept of sousveillance, that providing such tools to citizens counterbalances the powers of otherwise one-sided surveillance. I consider this to be somewhat of a "right to bear arms" argument and am forced to wonder whether such a state is at all desirable. Are many weapons preferable to a single weapon?
In contrast, one might also see Telus' foray into video surveillance as part of the surveillance "arms race" that will inevitably be a race to the bottom (the always enjoyable skeptic's position).
Alas, I fear this moral debate will only be resolved by the great oracle of our time... the market.
One additional comment:
4. Telus, as a large ISP, has rallied against so-called "net neutrality" laws. One of the arguments that they've presented is that high-bandwith applications (Bit Torrent, streaming video etc) overuse the system to the detriment of their business model. While the Linksys product claims to compress the video streams, streaming video is by its nature very data intensive. It seems that the "Telus the Retailer" is selling exactly the type of product that the "Telus the ISP" claims to be ruining their profitability. A similar example might be Sony the CD-Burner manufacturer vs. Sony BMG the music producer.
Posted by: Jeremy HL at June 14, 2006 03:29 PM