Privacy Issues of Wearable Cameras versus Surveillance Cameras

Steve Mann, Feb. 24, 1995 (updated with Newsweek article July 1995)
I never really minded when friends or relatives would take my picture, or even once when someone showed me a magazine in which my picture had appeared in full color. Someone had snapped a picture of me in front of a computer terminal and published it in a magazine. Nobody had asked me for permission, and it looked like a profit-making magazine, but I didn't feel I'd been wronged.

A foreign visitor once pointed out to me that there was a picture of me on one of the bulletin boards. It is quite common within our research group for people to snap pictures at parties and other social events, and to post them on bulletin boards (on their office doors, or behind glass in the hallways, and more likely nowadays on their World Wide Web home page). In a sense, research groups, workplaces, or the like, operate much like extended families with regard to the picture-taking process -- it's part of getting to know one another, and no harm is meant.

I've even appeared on TV, and more than once, without thinking much of it.

However, I've always felt that surveillance cameras take a bigger bite out of our soul than Dad's Super-8 movie camera, or Grandma's instamatic 110, even though pictures from the former will most likely never be looked at by anyone, and pictures from the latter will likely be viewed by many people over the years -- old home movies are constantly being thrust upon all who will tolerate them. So I felt quite uncomfortable when video surveillance cameras began to rise over our city, on high poles, looming over our neighbourhoods. In fact, I would rank cameras in increasing order of acceptability (fairness) as follows:

with a neutral position in the middle (people looking at people). Surveillance is actually desirable when aimed at Big Brother (and possibly also Big Business). It would seem logical that organizations capable of wrongdoing should be placed under a degree of surveillance proportional to their capacity to inflict damage to society. The potential damage, to society, of a large and unaccountable organization, operating above the law, is far greater than the damage that an individual might inflict by stealing a loaf of bread. Thus it is possible that society would do well to place certain large organizations under greater scrutiny than a shopper at the local convenience store, or someone living in a house near (or walking down a public sidewalk past) a gas station. What is and is not a violation of privacy? Perhaps the principle of "self ownership" could serve as a guide to answering this question.
Shrouded in Secrecy then Cloaked in Darkness
Phil Patton's recent article (Wired, January 1995) underscores the ubiquitous nature of video surveillance, and also touches on the darker side of video surveillance -- hidden cameras.

Patton refers to "glass ceiling domes of wine-dark opacity". These smoked glass or plastic domes are a surveillance smoke-screen, installed in an attempt to hide their contents. However, I've occasionally seen them opened up for repair. Inside is yet another layer of secrecy: an opaque matte-black shroud that prevents light from passing through the dark cover, leaving the camera shrouded in secrecy beneath a cloak of darkness.

Why are the designers of these systems (and those who buy them) so paranoid? What are they trying to hide? Once when taking a picture of a "ceiling dome of wine-dark opacity" (at the MIT bookstore, double-shooting, e.g. looking through the viewfinder of an ordinary camera using wearable wireless webcam so that my viewing audience could experience vicariously the process of taking a picture with an ordinary camera), the store manager instantly appeared out of nowhere, telling me that I was not allowed to take pictures. I asked her why, and she said it was store policy. I asked her if the store policy was available in written form anywhere, and she could not provide me with any such policy. Thinking on my feet, about one of the reseach projects I was working on at the time (e.g. to make a 3-D CAD model of the university campus), I asked the manager about taking measurements in the store, to which she said special permission would be required. After talking about this for a few minutes, it became apparent that I would need to get written permission from head office even just to stand in one corner of the store and count the ceiling tiles (e.g. to make a note of the dimensions of the store in units of ceiling tiles).

This paranoia among shopkeepers is not just an East-coast phonomena. I recall a place on the West Coast (Fry's electronics) that searched people on the way in to make sure they didn't have any cameras, recording devices, or anything with which to take notes. Some things that I was told verbally there (terms of refund and exchange) I could not get in writing from anyone, even after I talked to the manager who himself repeated the terms verbally but refused to put them in writing. During my discussions up the chain of people who refused to put the terms of the refund/exchange policy in writing (eventually leading me to the manager), everyone refused to identify themselves. Each person re-iterated the terms of refund/exchange ("bring it back for a refund, no questions asked!") but refused to tell me his/her name. After that incident, I never went back! I figured noting prices on my computer (or good old fashioned note pad with pen) and doing a little comparison-shopping ought to be fair game.

Perhaps the most paranoid of organizations are gambling casinos. In fact it was in a gambling casino that I first saw the "ceiling domes of wine-dark opacity". From there they appeared to spread to grey-market discount stores, and then later to just about every department store in existance.

Seen Through the Glass, Darkly
In addition to the "ceiling domes of wine-dark opacity", there are the partially silvered domes, the dark windows, and the partially silvered mirrors. Patton makes reference to the fact that "many department stores use video cameras behind one-way mirrors in changing rooms". Recently, there have been a number of TV documentaries on hidden cameras in changerooms, washrooms and employee locker rooms. These findings ought to raise some serious questions regarding an individual's right to the most basic form of privacy. Furthermore, the recent proliferation of one-way mirrors or dark windows in the back of many toilet stalls, used in conjunction with automatic flush toilets and faucets has got to raise some questions as to the potential misuse by employers and other organizations. Organizations like Sheraton hotel justify their use of hidden surveillance cameras in employee change rooms, based on a claim that they "suspect drug use".

Whether we're using an intelligent automatic teller machine, or an intelligent automatic flush machine, we're seen through the glass, darkly .

We're a society obsessed with sanitation -- flush levers and faucets are more objects that others have touched, and many would rather not touch. But the question still remains: what is behind the one-way mirrors, dark glass, and lenses in the restroom. What is in the room behind the toilets? A few paces around an airport washroom and a little arithemetic will often show that there IS some lost space, and that, in fact, there IS a room behind the stalls -- perhaps a dark little crawlspace full of pipes and solenoid-operated valves, and light coming in from the one-way mirrors, dark windows, or lenses in each stall. And we do know that airports are among the most paranoid of organizations, perhaps with some justification to be paranoid, but nevertheless paranoid.

What is a motion detector? A $5 or $10 single-chip video camera with on-board processing? Fine if the one-bit output (occupied/nonoccupied) is all that is available, but how do we verify this? There really isn't a mechanism for inspection. The sensor is seldom placed out in the open, or behind clear glass. Instead, various sensors and surveillance equipment and the unknown entities that control them have an omnipotentence that has traditionally been above question -- perhaps even above the law, and certainly above any reasonble ethics.

Now we're judged, as though through a glass, darkly. Only if we do something wrong, shall we see our accuser face to face (in court).

Do we own our motions? Do we have a right to know what happens to our motions, and how this information is processed and used. Should we be concerned with what's connected to an intelligent motion detector, or should we just place absolute trust in authority? It's hard to place absolute trust in organizations that don't trust us.

There are some serious privacy issues here that go far beyond getting off a mailing list, having an unlisted number in the phone book, or a driver's license number that is different than your social security number.

Coming from the showers in a university locker room, I find myself face-to-face with a pair of lenses above a urinal. I do not know what is behind the metal plate, so securely fastened with tamper-proof screws. Machine vision has become a little too pervasive. If standing naked in front of a calibrated stereo rig doesn't make us think of privacy, what does?

Privacy and the Wearable Camera
Suppose we combined "the quality or state of being apart from company" together with "the quality or state of being apart from observation". In other words, suppose we constructed a world in which people could not be observed when they were alone -- a world in which observation required company.

People should know when they are being watched. It used to be that we would assume that when we were alone we were not being watched. So there was a clear boundary between public and private. The only cameras were people. A person is a camera, in the sense that he or she can see something, remember it, communicate it to others, and so forth. Some people even had ``photographic memory'' and could remember things very well. Many people were artists, and could communicate memories to others very well.

Despite efforts of privacy advocates, the "glass ceiling domes of wine-dark opacity" along with the dark windows and one-way mirrors continue to grow in number. There is a rapidly growing industry eager to supply smaller and smaller cameras, and now there are cameras that can see almost a full 180 degrees through a small pinhole, and deliver digital video with 1024-line resolution (e.g. comparable to HDTV).

Turning the tables
Information is power, seeing is believing, and organizations believe in power -- power over individuals. But the tables are turning. The very miniaturization that has made it possible for police to hide cameras in shopping-mall washrooms has also made camcorders small and light enough for average citizens to carry around and capture events like the Rodney King beating, and similar human rights abuses in Canada as well (such as by the Canadian air force). Miniaturization has turned the technology into an equalizer rather than an oppressor. As with many problems, the problem of surveillance contains its own solution.

There are three weaknesses in the camcorder technology, however: inconvenience and obtruseveness; destructibility of the evidence; and insufficient protection from forced disclosure (the latter two pertaining to siezure by authorities). Firstly a camcorder's use requires an active role. Despite names like "handycam", it does require thought and effort to pull it out and begin recording with it, whereas its big-brother (the surveillance camera upon the lamp post or ceiling) requires zero effort to engage -- it is always on. If the officers had seen the witness pulling out a camcorder -- pulling it out does attract considerable attention -- they would have probably confiscated the recording. This brings us to the second weakness of the camcorder: local storage.

WearCam (and later the wearable NetCam) arose out of a personal interest in photography and imaging, and later, a desire to put images and video onto my World Wide Web home page with near zero delay. Early embodiments of the WearCam invention were big, clumsy, and ugly, but a smaller version was built using 1990s technology. NetCam points ahead, roughly matching the view of the wearer, and it sends images over the internet, so that they can be backed up in one or more remote locations, perhaps in different countries around the world. Basically NetCam has the capability of producing an indestructible visual record.

I won't go as far as saying a "record of fact". We know that images can be electronically altered. William Mitchell's book, Reconfigured Eye, gives a thorough account of visual truth in the post-photographic era. However, multiple independent accounts will bring us closer to truth than that of one omnipotent entity. The movie Rising Sun deals with the issues of hidden surveillance cameras. A company falsifies video surveillance records in order to better its position. Of course, like most movies, the good guys win, and the bad guys are caught due to sloppy image editing. If, however, we have multiple independent accounts, we may compare them, and if they differ, we may scrutinize them thoroughly in the areas in which they differ. In particular, one party will no doubt overlook some subtle kinematic constraints on object motion, or perhaps there will be an accidental glint of a clock face in a mirror somewhere, or perhaps the pixels won't quite dance in exactly the right way. These little things would go totally unnoticed unless there were a comparison between multiple accounts of the same event.

While a camera cannot (or if it still can, it won't be long before it cannot) be used as a record of truth, it can be used to augment our memory. Our own family photographs bring back childhood memories for each of us, but mean nothing when shown to someone else. Similarly, I can relive my Christmas vacation by scrolling through my NetCam image sequence, even if it is severely downsampled (e.g. throwing away every 100 frames or so). Even a little quicktime movie brings it all back to me clearly in my mind, even though the images are barely discernable.

The traditional model of crime is that individuals committ crimes against the state, or against organizations (e.g. shoplifting, bank robbery, and the like). However, people have recently become aware that organizations committ crimes as well. Even priests and other church officials can succomb to the temptation of crime.

Who's Afraid of Wearable Wireless Webcam
So who is afraid of a camera connected to a radio transmitter? True it does reduce our privacy slightly. It's one more camera in a world already full of cameras. Given a choice between hidden cameras in my workplace, and cameras mounted on people in my workplace I'd choose the latter. Both are intrusions into my privacy, but the latter is far less intrusive, and far more symmetrical. With the latter, you use the simple rule: when somebody's looking, you're on camera, when nobody's looking you're not on camera. You can still pick your nose when nobody's looking. In the toilet stall or department store changeroom, nobody else is present so you're not on camera. Privacy equals seclusion. Observation needs company.

If we envision a society in which fixed-cameras of all kinds are prohibited, and only wearable cameras are allowed, and assume, further, that wearable cameras are cheap enough that everyone could afford one, such a society may well be more private than the one in which we are currently living. In fact, if we were all wearing cameras we could certainly reduce crime. Crimes would be solved by cooperation among individuals. In a sense we would be witnesses with augmented visual memory, and augmented visual communications skills. These augmentations would eliminate the need for surveillance cameras, and it would not be necessary to have fixed cameras (hidden or not).

Now it is true that criminals would still try to avoid being seen by anyone, but the fact that everyone had such good memory would make it much harder to avoid getting caught.

Some of these privacy issues become clearer when we consider a simple taxonomy of cameras.

So who's afraid of WearCam? Well, quite frankly, WearCam is enough to give casino owners hives. But that's not so bad, because WearCam keeps me out of casinos. Casinos aren't at the top of my list of favorite places. And professional gamblers -- the likes of Al Capone -- are not the sort of people I'd like to associate with.

A shopkeeper who has his fire exits chained shut is afraid of WearCam -- such a shopkeeper is afraid anyone with a good memory for that matter.

A trojan bank (e.g. like the trojan horse) is bank run by criminals but masquerading as a branch of a major bank. The criminals lease a storefront, (perhaps in a shopping mall), under a false name, and ``seed'' the bank with cash. You or I, delighted that there is a new branch of our bank close by, enter to make a withdrawal, not knowning that the trojan bank reads off our account number, PIN, etc. A week later, the employees of the bank disappear without a trace, along with lots of cash withdrawn from legitimate branches of the same bank (perhaps through legitimate ATMs, by people wearing ski masks so as to avoid ATM securicam scrutiny). Employees working in trojan banks would be afraid of WearCam.

A criminal wearing a stolen policeman's uniform would be afraid of WearCam. Of course, the law enforcement officers who beat Rodney King would be afraid of WearCam. What good would surveillance recordings of the Rodney King beating be if only police could access them?

People who work in nursing homes and abuse the elderly who live there would be afraid if those elderly wore NetCam. WearCam images sent to friends and relatives are far more useful than images from the establishment's own surveillance cameras. Establishments have been known to ``accidentally'' lose image recordings, and sometimes ``forget'' to start the recording apparatus.

Priests who abuse children in the church would be afraid of children who wore NetCam, as would abusive school teachers. Already there is surveillance in many schools. Why not also have some students wearing video cameras? Currently, teachers are using video cameras to catch students throwing tennis balls, spitting on tables in the cafeteria, or sneaking out classes. With WearCams, abusive teacher would face similar possibilities of getting caught, and could be punished under law, or by parents filing civil action suits.

People falsely accused of crimes would be less likely to ``fall'' down jailhouse stairs while awaiting trial if they wore NetCam in jail.

Law enforcement is a tough job. Much of the time police fail to receive the credit that they deserve. These people risk their lives to ensure our safety. We hire these people to break down doors and look down the barrel of shotguns. When you consider the kind of people a typical police officer is forced to deal with, it is not surprising that suicide rates are high in the law enforcement profession. And of course, there is the occasional corrupt police officer. It is the occasional corrupt police officer who would be afraid of WearCam, while the majority of police officers would welcome WearCam as they welcome cellular phones. The cellular phone is a great weapon against crime.

Thus it would seem reasonable to have a law that would make interference with someone's WearCam a criminal offence. It would seem reasonable to encourage even those suspected of crime to wear WearCam while awaiting trial if they wanted to.

There is of course the chilling prospect that people could be REQUIRED to wear a NetCam, and this should be guarded against, for it provides a road (or maybe a superhighway) toward an Orwellian dystopia. That raises the important question: who owns the data? Well, as with traditional photography, the photographer owns the data. NetCam is an augmented memory system, and if we choose to extend our brain with augmented memory, this memory should attain the same level of protection as our own thoughts. In order to prevent NetCam from being used as a thought-control device, it is necessary to enforce this ownership through encryption. If law enforcement had the power to sieze NetCam data, we'd basically be living in a Clipper-like world. We'd be giving law enforcement the power to reach into our brains and read out our memory. In a sense, we'd have thought police.

Contribution of image data to the law enforcement efforts must be voluntary. Encryption is one way to ensure this. Another is to have an intermittent NetCam transmitter that the wearer activates only during desired points in time, so that only the wearer knows whether or not a particular event was transmitted (and recorded). Only the wearer knows the whereabouts of the data in cyberspace. Each user can send to a variety of different recording sites around the world, so that there may be various incomplete records of memory, and only the wearer or perhaps some friends and relatives of his or her choice need know all the locations and encryption keys.

The End of Video Surveillance?
The distributed nature of the NetCam augmented memory data would make it less subject to a totalitarian control than video surveillance. Video surveillance will always be upon us. Quite likely, the establishment, with its use of video surveillance, will have the upper hand, for they have the advantage of fixed camera geometry calibrated within the environment, the ability to do motion detection (e.g. when nobody is present, all pixels remain the same), and better communications (hard-wired closed-circuit). However, the ubiquitous use of wearable NetCams will tip the balance a little toward the center -- toward a little bit of fairness on the Surveillance Superhighway. While the taxi drivers, law enforcement officers, shopkeepers, and government will continue to have surveillance, now the passengers, suspects, shoppers, and citizens will be able to look back at the former on a more fair and equal footing.

Privacy advocates are often either ignored, or focused on the wrong issues (e.g. worrying about ways to reduce junk mail). Another approach that might be worth considering is shooting back.

Some Suggested NetCam Ethics