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The launch of CCTV citizen spy game Internet Eyes - 4/10/2010

Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it...
- Judge Learned Hand, 'The Spirit of Liberty' speech (1944)

The announcement that Internet Eyes is to launch on 4th October (as part of a three month trial) marks another disturbing chapter in Britain's surveillance society.

The Information Commissioner has put private profit above personal privacy in allowing a private company to launch its Stasi style citizen spy game rather than defending the rights of British citizens. This is the privatisation of the surveillance society - a private company asking private individuals to spy on each other using private cameras connected to the internet. Internet Eyes must be challenged.

In the autumn of 2009 Internet Eyes Limited hit the headlines when they announced their desire to launch a CCTV game that they were keen to claim was not a game. Private individuals would subscribe to private camera feeds connected to the internet and spy on people going about their business, with a cash prize each month for the person who reports the most infringements. The game is now being launched as part of a three month trial at 12 shops (including Costcutter and Spar franchises) in towns including Reading, Wokingham and Newton Abbott.

In the United States in 2008 a similar hair-brained project, called the 'Texas Virtual Border Watch Program' [1] was launched which allows anyone in the world to log on via the internet and watch a live feed of the Texas border to supposedly report suspicious activity (which in reality consists mainly of birds or deer lurking with intent).

A July 2009 Homeland Security Newswire article 'Virtual border system ineffective, out of cash' [2] details a few of the reports made by Texas Virtual Border Patrol viewers:

Some, such as Phyllis Waller of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, reported precisely what they saw. "Cow or deer walked by; now out of screen," she wrote. Another activity report simply read, "armadillo by the water."

One border watcher offered some advice: "Just a word of warning: A moment ago I saw a spider crawl across the top of the camera. You might want to try and prevent any webs from being spun across the lens area by treating with repellent or take other measures."

Much like the failed US citizen spy system Internet Eyes viewers will be watching nothing much going on, in this case in shops - just people going about their daily business: buying a pint of milk, standing in a queue or choosing a chocolate bar.

There have been other citizen spy pilots such as the cable TV channel in East London that showed live feeds of CCTV cameras in the area. All of these seek to outsource surveillance monitoring to members of the public, making members of the public the watchers and consequently part of the surveillance state. In doing so they hope to normalise people to surveillance and aim to make people ignore the uses to which constant monitoring can be put by the state or corporations. Not to mention the appalling impact this disconnect has on society.

Last year a BBC television programme, 'Inside Out' [3] described Internet Eyes as a "revolution" in CCTV despite the fact that it had not yet launched and that the Texas virtual border patrol to which they compared it was an enormously expensive failure ($2 million dollars spent in the first year for just 12 arrests).

Numerous studies (including those commissioned by the Home Office) have shown that CCTV does not have a significant effect on crime, so such "revolutions" are ways of ensuring that the public does not focus on the lie that they have been sold. Creating systems that encourage people to watch the world through a monitor and report those they see on the screen actually discourages them from interacting with real people and participating in the community in which they live.

One of the claims made by Internet Eyes is that the reason CCTV doesn't work is because there is hardly anyone watching them in real time. This just isn't true. The vast majority of council/police cameras in the UK are watched 24 hours a day by trained staff. It is these cameras that have been subject to the most studies and have been shown to be ineffective.

No CCTV along with Privacy International issued a joint complaint [4] to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) last year as we believe that as well as being a ludicrous gimmick the game breaches the Data Protection Act. We laid out in detail the ways in which Internet Eyes breaches the Act but the ICO refused to block the launch of Internet Eyes and in fact bent over backwards to help the private company squeeze it's game into the existing legal framework.

Section 8.2 of the ICO CCTV guidelines [5] states: "[...] it would not be appropriate to disclose images of identifiable individuals to the media for entertainment purposes or place them on the internet". Despite claims of technical safeguards Internet Eyes Ltd have no way of knowing who is viewing their images and they have no way of controlling where such images are stored or distributed. For instance an internet viewer could simply use a video camera to record images from a CCTV feed and then keep those images permanently or distribute them as they see fit.

The thinking behind the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham's failure to block the launch of Internet Eyes was revealed when he appeared before the House of Commons Justice Committee session on 'Justice issues in Europe' in January of this year [6], Graham told MPs:

I think there are differences of view within the European Union and some of my colleagues, some of the data protection authorities take not just a purist view but see it as their role to stop things happening whereas I think in the UK we take a more practical approach where we say here are tremendous opportunities provided by modern technology and the question is finding the balance between getting the best out of the opportunities that the technology provides and the necessary protection of privacy. If you simply begin by saying privacy is an absolute and we must stop things in the name of privacy, you do not get anything done. It is much more of a challenge to come up with that balance between getting the utility from technology while protecting privacy.

Graham's claim of balance between privacy and technology is not viable. In reality every new technology erodes privacy - if as each new technology comes along a new "balance" is sought then a bit more privacy is given away and privacy never gets to regain lost ground.

Much of the media coverage around the launch has suggested that the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) has in some way approved Internet Eyes. This is not quite true. The ICO was not willing to prevent Internet Eyes from launching. They have advised the company about data protection compliance and the company has made some changes to its service. Once the service has launched the ICO will have to respond to complaints and should it be found that the service breaches the Data Protection Act then they will have to take action.

Internet Eyes is a very grave concern and we call on those affected by the citizen spy game to contact us with a view to legal action.

As Sir Ken MacDonald, former Director of Public Prosecutions warned at a CPS lecture in 2008 [7]: "... we should take very great care to imagine the world we are creating before we build it. We might end up living with something we can't bear."

Endnotes:


Posted in Anti-CCTV general - 4/10/2010

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