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Almost But Not Quite
Jamais Cascio, 11 Nov 03

In many cities in the UK, an average person is recorded by hundreds of cameras per day. These cameras are intended for public security, an unblinking eye watching over the citizens like some kind of older sibling. These closed-circuit TV (CCTV) cameras are connected back to a central police station, where officers keep an eye out for mischief and malcontents. When trouble appears, this central office can dispatch police to the scene.

The South Yorkshire city of Sheffield is taking this a step further by distributing hand-held computers with wireless access to the CCTV network in the city center, giving beat officers a way to keep track of the monitors and see problems as they arise.

The question that this prompts is why such access is limited to police officers? These cameras aren't in sensitive, private locations, and the images aren't being used to send secret police-only messages. One can readily imagine all sorts of public uses for these cameras, from "hey, has my friend arrived at the city park yet for some dogging?" to "how bad is the traffic?" Furthermore, more eyes watching public areas would mean a better chance of catching a crime in progress.

One term for this sort of activity is "sousveillance," which means "watching from below," an alternative to "surveillance," or "watching from above." As a concept, it's still a work-in-progress; the current manifestation of sousveillance seems to focus on making the lives of minimum-wage department store employees even more hellish. But if cameras are going to be everywhere, isn't it better to give everyone access to what they see, rather than just a limited few?

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