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The Participatory Panopticon vs. The Pentagon

Digital cameras may have had their Rodney King moment this last week, with the pictures taken of prisoner abuses by American troops in Iraq, sent via email around the world. When coupled with digital technology, that three-step process -- See, Snap, Send -- becomes revolutionary action. Whether the people taking the pictures did so out of a sense of outrage, a desire to document a moment, or misguided amusement, the result is the same: the knowledge that anyone, anywhere, with a digital camera and a network connection has enormous power, perhaps enough to alter the course of a war or the policies of the most powerful nation on Earth.


During his testimony, Rumsfeld made clear his exasperation with dealing with a "radioactive" scandal, when images shot by a digital camera can be beamed around the world almost instantaneously by e-mail or stored by the hundreds on a CD.

"We're functioning ... in the Information Age, where people are running around with digital cameras and taking these unbelievable photographs and then passing them off, against the law, to the media, to our surprise, when they had not even arrived in the Pentagon," Rumsfeld said.

This should come as no surprise. It is increasingly easy and inexpensive to take digital images and video and send them off over the Internet or wireless phone networks; it is correspondingly increasingly difficult to prevent visual records of events from slipping loose. Cameraphones pose a particularly knotty problem, as it's a simple matter to send a picture off immediately upon its being taken -- there's no film to destroy or memory card to erase. It's sometimes difficult to tell without a close inspection whether a mobile phone has a camera or not. The proliferation of small, easily concealed and readily networked digital cameras is a headache for those trying to keep some degree of privacy in the world and a nightmare for those trying to keep some degree of secrecy in it.

The network-connected digital camera and the wireless cameraphone are the weapons of the Second Superpower.


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Comments (11)


CSI Miami just ran an episode in which all the camera phones at a concert were examined in order to figure out where a gunshot occurred. "I thought they banned all cameras from the concert." "Yes, but they didn't ban camera phones."

Stefan Jones:

A good time to drag out and reread that copy of Brin's The Transparent Society.

" . . . all the conservatism in the world does not afford even a token resistance to the ecological sweep of the new electronic media."
-- Marshall McLuhan

As it happens, I'm quoted in Transparent Society, although arguing for the hardcore privacy-rights side. As I've spent more time thinking about the implications of always-on communication & information networks, I find it harder to deny Brin's core point, that, like it or not, privacy as we've come to know it probably is going away. The question, then, is how do we shape the emerging world such that the increasing amount of transparency is two-way, and not simply better enabling the watchmen?

Stefan Jones:

That's the trick:

Cheap and out-of-control technology aside, there's a serious power imbalance between people with the law behind them (government, law enforcement, military) and outsiders. I think Dave is too trusting of government to do the right thing and enable Transparency . . . as opposed to getting out a can of flat black rustoleum.

I'm quoted in TS too . . . spent many an hour reading early drafts and wrangling with DB.


ABC News with Peter Jennings did a story tonight on Congress looking into cell phone cameras. Upskirting was prominently mentioned.

I suspect that legislative responses to both the privacy and sousveillance aspects of camphones will take two forms: all camphones will be required to make a distinct "shutter" sound when a picture is taken, even when the phone is on silent mode (my T610, pictured above, makes the shutter noise only when I don't have the phone muted); and all camphones will be required to respect a "do not record" signal, disallowing the use of cameras in certain situations. The latter is more technically challenging than the former, of course. Since there's quite a bit of phone "churn," I would expect that it wouldn't take long before most people had the phones that obeyed the rules.

Stefan Jones:

I was going to make a snide comment about the government eventually requiring that *all* digital cameras comply with a "sorry, you can't take pictures here" signal, resulting in people being unable to take snapshots except within 50' of those "Kodak Memories Photo Spot" things you see in theme parks.

Then I remembered a long, long ago episode of "The Thunderbirds," in which the bad guy -- always trying to steal the secrets of the good guys' nifty vehicles -- takes a picture of Thunderbird 1 with an old fashioned *film camera*, circumventing the craft's anti-electronic-camera jamming signal.

How cool is that?

I suspect that imposing a picture-control chip on all digital cameras would be a bit more difficult than on camphones, as it's entirely possible to continue to use even a decade-old digital camera, as long as it's in good working order (I still have my old Apple QuickTake 150, for example). Part of the reason that mobile phones churn so quickly is that there have been enough changes to the underlying technology that it's much more difficult to hang onto an old phone and still use it regularly. A few years down the road, I may lust after a 20 megapixel foveon SLR, but my current digital camera will still continue to take decent pictures. I doubt I'll still have the T610 phone in three years.

Is that is the best that the media can come up with? Although I am not a woman, so someone taking photos up my skirt doesn’t apply to me. Pictures of me naked, or in my underwear can only hurt my pride. But this technology in the hands of myself and fellow citizens could also protect my rights. I do not want a camera phone that only takes pictures when allowed. This could be used to shield those who choose to exploit it. We need to take responsibility for are actions. Also the cameras should make a clicking sound so you actually know yourself when the camera is taking a picture. This provides a nice usability feature. But what about when the camera phones are video camera phones. Will they make a filming sound? The media is against this because it is eating away at there market share. Either way the advantages to society these devices can provide far out way the privacy concerns they create.


Yeah, as Jamais and I were discussing, the trend toward a Brin-envisioned future where privacy is more or less gone or at least much different from what it is today seems pretty inevitable, despite our instinctual resistance to the idea. So rather than fight the trend, we need to embrace it and start demanding transparency at all levels of IP infrastructure, and use our cameras and networks
to custodiet ipsos custodies, so to speak.


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