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Surveillance and Sousveillance: A continuation of questions for Steve Mann PDF Print
Surveillance and Sousveillance: A continuation of questions for Steve Mann
By: Steven Davis

May 3, 2005

At the ConcealedI Conference held on March 4th, Steve Mann presented material from his sousveillence at a Sears Department store in the Toronto area. In part of his presentation, he presented a video clip in which he is shown asking some Sears’ sales clerks about the purpose of a device affixed to the ceilings of the sales floors, obviously a surveillance camera. Many of the answers were evasive and indicated, so Steve implied, bad faith on the part of the sales clerks. One of the sales clerks, if my memory serves me correctly, said that the device was for measuring temperature and another said that he didn’t know what it was for. There was a sales clerk who seemed to own up to what he thought were the cameras’ function; its purpose, the clerk said, was to take pictures of possible shop lifters. The way in which Steve presented the material the sales clerks were portrayed as objects of ridicule. It would appear that part of Steve’s motivation was to show the offensiveness of in-store and similar surveillance cameras. Most of the people in the audience at the conference seemed to agree with Steve’s assessment of the situation and laughed at the store clerks’ responses to his questions.

I want to raise a point about Steve’s presentation and take issue with what he seemed to indicate about the purpose of the Sears surveillance cameras. It seems to me that Steve, like the clerks, missed the purpose of the cameras. They are not primarily meant to spy on the customers and to make sure that they don’t make off with Sears’ merchandise without paying. Such cameras are mainly aimed at the poor sales clerks that Steve was so quick to hold up to ridicule. Most store theft is internal and amounts to billions of dollars a year, theft against which stores have a right to protect themselves. If we stop and think for a moment, the cameras are really not much protection against outside theft. Suppose that I snatch something from Sears. My bit of larceny is caught on film. (I assume that the cameras take pictures rather than being connected to monitors with alert store employees watching the moves of the customers.) Now my face is on film. How could this help the store prevent or discourage me and others from doing what I did? The store can’t track me down to have me arrested? No store has on file images of the thousands of people who use the store every day. So the film doesn’t help in catching me, the offending thief. But it can catch an in-store thief, since the store management can visually identify their employees. The conclusion is that Steve missed the purpose of the cameras. They are not directed at him or us, but the poor store clerks that he was so quick to make fun of.

Consider another case of surveillance. Why are there cameras in banks? To protect the banks’ money, you might say. In part. But an important role they have is to protect the bank employees. Bank robbers who hold up tellers make off with very little money, but sometimes things go awry and the crooks start shooting up the bank. And when they do, more often than not, it is the poor bank teller who gets it in the neck or some other bodily part. So now how do the cameras protect the tellers? Well bank robbing appears to be a profession and many who engage in it have records and thus have their mugs in a police data bank some where. Thus, capturing their pictures on film might lead to their arrest. It up the stakes for them, since most of them don’t want to spend time in the slammer. It then can serve to dissuade some from sticking a gun in a tellers face and telling her to hand over the contents of her cash draw. (Most tellers are women.) How then should we feel about such cameras?

And there are other cases of the use of cameras the purpose of which is to protect rather than to spy. Can anyone be opposed to cameras in underground parking garages? In long metro corridors? At deserted bus stops? Or in places where terrorists might plant bombs, for example in Northern Ireland which was plagued with bomb attacks against civilians, including women and children. Where then are we opposed to the placing of surveillance cameras? In government buildings? Around military bases? On trains, buses, and subways? If so, we first have to ask why the cameras are there and second, whom they protect. My guess is that they mostly protect ordinary working class people, the clerks who staff government buildings, the enlisted soldiers who fill our military bases, the ordinary folks who ride the subways, buses, and trains.

Think of the surveillance cameras in mom and pop convenience stores. There, the purpose is to protect against outside theft, but can anyone be opposed to this? Convenience stores are often owned and run by immigrant families who spend many hours behind the counters of these stores. They work from early in morning to late at night and for all their sweat labour they earn very little. But the little they earn can be eaten away by petty snatch and grab. Surveillance cameras probably help stem the theft. Can we really be opposed to such immigrant families protecting their meager earnings?

What then is the objection to the use of surveillance cameras in Canada? There is of course the possibility that surveillance cameras could be over used, but in many cases they serve a quite legitimate purpose. It is a no brainer to claim that they shouldn’t be over used, and there can be disagreement about when and where they are over used. But it doesn’t follow from this that they have no legitimate use in both a legal and moral sense.

Steven Davis is a Professor of Philosophy, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Centre on Values and Ethics, Carleton University.
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