March 11, 2007

CCTVs and the panoptic

Filed under: space, Surveillance — ubikcan @ 6:00 pm

Interesting new article on CCTVs in the UK.

Context: The newspaper The Independent reported in 2004 that:

MORE THAN four million surveillance cameras monitor our every move, making Britain the most watched nation in the world, research has revealed.

The number of closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras has quadrupled in the past three years, and there is now one for every 14 people in the UK. The increase is happening at twice the predicted rate, and it is believed that Britain accounts for one-fifth of all CCTV cameras worldwide. Estimates suggest that residents of a city such as London can each expect to be captured on CCTV cameras up to 300 times a day, and much of the filming breaches existing data guidelines. (The Independent, January 12, 2004).

While your “locational privacy” (as Monmonier puts it) is paramount in some countries, the Independent continued:

The use of cameras to film people in the street is banned in Germany, Canada and several other countries. But it is accepted practice in Britain, which is alone in not having a privacy law that protects people against constant surveillance.

No law against surveillance…?

Now a new article (doi:10.1068/d384t) by author Daniel Neyland points out that all these cameras are going to have an effect (often unintended) on our behavior and that they create certain kinds of spaces.

Using the language of science and technology studies (STS), Neyland says that there isn’t first some space through which people walk as they’re watched, but that certain kinds of space are “made.” What’s perhaps different about this angle is that it treats people as productive actors, rather than passive victims of panopticism. At least this is what he claims. Another key component are the staff viewing these screens: how do they decide when something out of the ordinary has happened, and when something mundane has happened?

Neyland suggests that we can study these staff and how they account for what has happened. The staff can fit what they see into a set of flexible categories of events, and at the same time create new categories:

CCTV staff when looking at images of the town centre, then, would not simply notice, for example, the age of a person in an image, but would constantly orient accounts of images toward particular and regularly repeated forms of identification.

This answers the questions of when something normal or abnormal has occurred:

…we could say accounts of space are achieved and thereby space is accomplished through each occasion of interactive accounting. We could then attempt to distinguish further between characteristics of the ‘professional vision’ of CCTV staff in the accomplishment of mundane accounts of activity that require no special attention (from the police, for example) and nonmundane accounts where a response forms a part of the accomplishment of the account.

So what did he find after this somewhat theoretical beginning? He studied an area in East London that had 32 CCTVs in the town center. The staff spend most of their time looking at very mundane images, but Neyland says that the staff “constitute” the space as mundane. They invent descriptions (“public flow,” “the public,” and “denim”).

This last example allows us to see what he’s getting at. One Saturday evening the police received a tip that someone in a denim jacket was seen possibly carrying a knife. The result was predictable: anyone in a denim jacket was seen as a possible offender, and the police stopped and questioned people in denim. Denim was not previously a problematic article of clothing, but was made into one that night.


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