Nowadays surveillance cameras accompany us almost at every turn. And although they follow us in residential estates, at work, in school, in the street, in shops and institutions, they still remain a mystery. What is happening on the other side? We do not know that, and it is not a coincidence. In video monitoring, as in the Panopticon, the relation "to see - to be seen" is broken. The hidden operator's task is to observe others, while he himself remains unseen. Cameras are very often built in such a way to make it unclear which way they are looking. We cannot even be certain if a given one is working at all.
We lack information on where the cameras are installed, how many of them are there, how much they cost, who uses them, what is their purpose, what happens to the recordings, how long those are stored, who has access to them.
There is far many more question marks connected with video surveillance. We lack information on where the cameras are installed, how many of them are there, how much they cost, who uses them, what is their purpose, what happens to the recordings, how long those are stored, who has access to them. The mess in this field arises largely from a lack of complex legal regulations. Very general principles of using cameras concern only some of public authorities (e.g. police or municipal guards), and in the case of private entities we have a real free-for-all: cameras are being fixed in any freely chosen place by everyone who fancies doing so. This creates a vast field for abuse.
Privacy threats are inscribed in the manner of functioning of video surveillance – an institutionalized form of voyeurism. Research shows that male operators use cameras to observe women. Cameras are installed in intimate places (e.g. toilets, dressing rooms); it also happens that devices fixed in public places peek inside private apartments. Funny, appalling or embarrassing recordings later leak to the media and the Internet. Despite that, cameras are being installed in yet more places and increasingly interfere with our everyday lives. Some of them still have limited technical possibilities, but there also appear electronic miracles, equipped with a variety of advanced functions.
And everything began quite inconspicuously. The history of video monitoring dates back to the first half of the 20th century. First, it was used only for strictly specified goals: to control employees, manage traffic or register the course of demonstrations. Only with time, monitoring started to be used as a routine tool serving the maintenance of order and crime prevention, which sparked off its dynamic development. Not coincidentally it happened in the 1990s, when after the end of the cold war companies producing commodities for the army faced the spectre of losing orders. Shifting the activity profile from external to internal security proved to be the solution. The external enemy was replaced by the internal enemy: a thief, vandal, immigrant or a homeless person against whom the new defence tool – CCTV cameras – had been directed.
Although in practice surveillance cameras are used for very different purposes, in the common awareness they are out there for our security.
The above phenomenon was accompanied by the winding up of the spiral of fear. Although in practice surveillance cameras are used for very different purposes, in the common awareness they are out there for our security. In practice, installation of video surveillance devices is often justified by a particular interest of the manufacturer or the person using that tool. Moreover, available research does not prove their impact on the level of crime. Quite the contrary – the "easy fix" offered by video surveillance may distract from more efficient solutions and consume financial resources which could be spent to that end. What is more, contrary to the popular belief that installing CCTV contributes to an increase in the sense of security, it may be quite the opposite. Cameras do not eliminate the sources of insecurity, yet they constitute tangible evidence that danger is lurking around. Thus, they may deepen the erosion of mutual trust and make people dependent on omnipresent surveillance.
The common application of video surveillance may in the long perspective generate social consequences which are hard to predict. Disciplining through the use of cameras promotes the attitudes of conformism and opportunism, while weakening the internal mechanisms of control. As our research shows, the presence of cameras contributes to the phenomenon of diffusion of responsibility – it may provide reasons for not reacting in a situation when something wrong is happening. Video surveillance sometimes is also a tool of exclusion, discrimination and stigmatization of otherness. That problem is especially visible in the case of technological solutions based on an automatic detection of threats, in which there is inscribed an assumption that certain human behaviours or features by definition may be deemed suspicious.
Poles know little about the functioning of video surveillance, and their views are shaped basing on the message spread in the media, which lacks reliable information and a critical reflection over what is the real purpose of the cameras and what costs they generate. We are trying to change that by initiating public debate. We would like it to be based on reliable knowledge, so we gather information on the functioning of CCTV cameras in Poland and conduct research concerning the social consequences of their application. On our website we collect and share information on video monitoring and we stigmatize cases of abuse.