Under Whose Watch?

Clinton Palanca

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An essay reflecting on the many ways we see surveillance, and the many ways it sees us

No one talks to the barber anymore. The conversations between this age-old set of interlocutors made the barbershop a central point (a node, if you like the language of network analysis) in the flow of information when people still talked politics and sports and expressed strong opinions. Now almost everyone is looking at a screen: which is not something I am inherently against, because after all, as I type this I am looking at a screen; but a sign of the times, as well as a waste of a good source of knowledge.

In a society that is teeming with humanity, we are obsessed with technology; and very often, we will try to implement a technological solution to a human problem. The current obsession with CCTV, the increasingly inappropriate term that stands for “closed-circuit television” (most security camera feeds are delivered over the Internet or proprietary networks, rather than a circuit of wires) is being hailed, unnervingly without debate or discussion, as the panacea for crime, morality, and justice. The gaze of the panoptical security camera feed has become a metonym for truth, a godlike assurance that we are being watched, and that it will be known if we’ve been naughty or nice. (It is impossible to discuss surveillance without a token reference to Bentham’s panopticon and Foucault so I’ll get that out of the way now: it is a panoptical gaze, the gaze of God.)

In practical terms the CCTV should have three uses. Only one is being fetishized right now in this country, that of recording a crime and reviewing the footage ex post facto. (It’s not within my expertise to argue whether CCTV footage can be altered or not, though common sense tells me that it can.) The second is to deter crime simply by its presence (this is why CCTV systems are not covert, and many institutions install “dummy” cameras). The third, and arguably the most important when it can be made to work, is to prevent crime before it happens. This is its main use in most first world countries. The reason is that to cover an area such as an airport, for instance, hundreds of camera feeds have to be tracked for suspicious behavior; no human, or team of humans, can do this, and sophisticated algorithms have to work with the camera feeds to pick up on certain behavior (and, though the companies are reluctant to admit it, certain racial profiles). Thus the man in a turban who keeps checking the trash bin will be bumped up to center screen.

The traditional opponents of CCTV have been privacy advocates, not all of whom are tinfoil hat conspiracy theory nut cases. The battle rages most virulently in the UK, which has the most number of security cameras in the world per capita. At the same time, as a society it is one of the most paranoid about privacy and data protection, which you will discover if you try to do any sort of photography or filmmaking in the country. Street photography has become nearly impossible because not only is it technically illegal, it is assumed that you’re up to no good. Cameras are not allowed in schools or anywhere with children for concerns of paedophilia. It’s a battle between an Orwellian state and a citizenship that grudgingly accepts the invasion of privacy under the banner of public good.

Ours is not a debate between privacy and security, but between who gets to watch and what they get to see. There is minimal government CCTV coverage of public spaces, and complementarily, people are not shy about having their photographs taken. Most of our security cameras are put up by private individuals, and no enforced law governs their use: There is no mandatory sign that one is being observed (and since most private security cameras have audio, eavesdropped upon); there are no rules about how this footage can be used; nor mandate on how long it can be kept before being destroyed. In the case of a nanny cam that records to flash memory so that a child’s wellbeing can be monitored remotely, the risks seem trivial. But what about small businesses (which are being encouraged by some municipalities to put up security cameras)? What about restaurants? What about big businesses, like malls and technoparks and other privately owned land? They can put up cameras in the name of security but the footage can be used for anything from tracking consumer behavior to re-broadcast for public shaming.

Many of the recent media circuses, from Claudine Baretto and Mon Tulfo at the airport, to Deniece Cornejo and Vhong Navarro, and most recently, the hazing incident involving the Benilde student Guillo Cesar Servando, have relied heavily on CCTV footage, which was released to the media without anyone raising any objections. They play a decisive role in trial by public opinion, even while their use as actual legal status as evidence remains murky. Burglaries, hold-ups, and even murders have been caught on security camera and have failed to secure convictions. If this sounds like an anti-oligarchic rant about the power of owners, managers, and landlords, the adjunct to this is the number of private videos that are used to shame road rage drivers, deflate egos (remember the angry motorist who “should have been informed!”) and surreptitiously capture intimate or sexual acts. It also shifts responsibility of policing and security from the state to the private individual. This is not a subversion of power so much as a race to the bottom. Everyone, everywhere, will be on video, which with infrared is not daunted by darkness, with endoscopic probes and heat detectors not deterred by walls. This is not science fiction; they are available at a discount on Alibaba.

A further problem is that these feeds are not secure: Any networked camera is vulnerable to hackers, and it is (apparently) very easy to hijack a feed, so that a nanny cam’s line out can become masturbation fodder for a technologically savvy sexual predator. Webcam footage, whether real or simulated, has become a fetish category in its own right, partly because of the voyeuristic thrill of the fly-on-the-wall observation; and partly because the unblinking gaze of the motionless wide-angle shot has a particular verité quality about it.

The solution to this is emphatically not legislation. Our love of technological solutions is matched only by our zeal for legislation. We love to legislate our way out of everything, to the point that there are laws about everything, and some of which even contradict one another. Laws are enforced selectively and are useless at engineering social behavior. This is not to say that there shouldn’t be bills floated about the ubiquity of CCTV and the use of security camera footage; there should, on the off-chance that they be obeyed and be enforced, be some debate. This is the reason why the Freedom of Information bill (and, previously, the RH bill) were more effective not being passed than if it were quickly zipped through the legislature. They work up a discussion that might not be on a national level, but is at least pervasive on social media and gets a mention or two on radio and television, and people are forced to think about it. And the most important thing for CCTV right now is for people to think about it. People should question, at the most basic level, whether it is a good thing to have or not. I have outlined three reasons for the use of security cameras in public places; studies are still divided on whether it is effective for any of the three, including Britain, where the results are still below the threshold of statistical significance.

I don’t think they work, and I don’t think they should be implemented here on a national level; at worst it will be a complete waste of money, at best a bunch of buffoons will have more footage of me than I care to share. I myself come down heavily on the side of privacy versus the dubious safety that surveillance affords in first world countries, but this is not a debate that makes any sense here; famously, Filipino (i.e. Tagalog) has no word for “privacy.” I care about privacy, and so do the middle class, but most people don’t; public opinion will come down in favor of surveillance because it’s an easy fix and we grasp at anything that can make the streets and malls and shops safer. I do use nanny cams both in my home and office, fully aware that the non-encrypted data streams are bounced off servers in China to be streamed to my phone. If a pervert really wants to masturbate to the sight of me hunched before my computer writing late at night, I might consider this a disturbing but victimless crime, but when it comes to my wife and child I would be a little more bothered. But this is my choice to put a camera in my home; and it is my responsibility to secure the data as much as possible. In my case it is a trade off between a partial, controlled invasion of private space over the security of knowing my child is not being disemboweled in my absence.

But the most important and most basic argument against surveillance is that its “truth” takes precedence over actual human experience. We place too much faith in technology, and rather than interpersonal or social norms finding an equilibrium, we fight back with more technology. CCTV cameras are the thin edge of the wedge toward a society in which everything is recorded and nothing is private; and machines tell the truth and people lie. Following the lead of the first world, we are obsessed with Big Data and what can be done with it, and there is no bigger data than video streams of all places at all times, every person’s actions continuously recorded and remembered: It is the eye of the divine, who sees and knows all. Despite this, the apparent truth that the images deliver is fallible. What looks like a crime may just be eccentric behavior. What looks innocuous on camera might be something else entirely. Security camera footage, for all its unblinking certainty, is not outside the realm of hermeneutics. The eye of God wears tinted spectacles.

Who will eventually hold this data and what could be done with it is uncertain; but I would rather not get to the point of having to find out. If it comes to the point when there is no private space between one’s inner self and thoughts and desires, and being in the world, in public view, then so goes the precious world of private actions: It would be as if there were no night, as though a bright, blinding searchlight illuminated every corner of our world, as though in an operating theater, and everything we did were to occur under this scrutiny. And as long as cameras and sensors and video recordings are assumed to speak incontrovertible truth, to the detriment of people whose testimony is assumed to be unreliable, humanity is diminished.

I’m no Luddite, railing against security cameras rather than cotton mills. Putting up a CCTV “for security” without questioning what it really does is vastly different, but few customers think it much different from changing a light bulb. Is it a middle-class concern? Of course it is; but this time, I think they have a point. The lives of others will always be of continuing interest as long as information is a source of power. But if you really want to know what’s happening, talk to the barber. Or any human.