Ten years ago this month, I edited a cover story for MIT’s Technology Review magazine called “Surveillance Nation.” Written by veteran science journalist Charles Mann and network security guru Dan Farmer, the story looked at the state of digital video circa 2003 and envisaged a near future where every home, business, and street would be subject to constant video monitoring. Far from feeling victimized or invaded, Mann and Farmer predicted, consumers would actually ask for this technology. They wrote:
Widespread electronic scrutiny is usually denounced as a creature of political tyranny or corporate greed. But the rise of omnipresent surveillance will be driven as much by ordinary citizens’ understandable—even laudatory—desires for security, control, and comfort as by the imperatives of business and government. “Nanny cams,” global-positioning locators, police and home-security networks, traffic jam monitors, medical-device radio-frequency tags, small-business webcams: the list of monitoring devices already deployed by and for average Americans is already long, and it will only become longer. Extensive surveillance, in short, is coming into being because people like and want it.
A decade on, it’s clear that Mann and Farmer could not have been more right. With nary a backward glance, Americans have bought hundreds of thousands of Internet-connected video cameras and aimed them at checkout counters, baby cradles, living-room couches, and pet kennels across the land. Add to all these stationary cameras our camera phones, dash cams, and sports cams, and there’s hardly a holdup, traffic accident, tremor, or meteor strike that goes unrecorded.
To George Orwell, or even to the average member of pre-9/11 society, this would have been a startling development. But the amount of public hand-wringing heard today over the arrival of ubiquitous surveillance is roughly zero. A few bloggers think Google Glasses are creepy, but a far more common complaint is that they’re deeply unfashionable. The American Civil Liberties Union worries about warrantless wiretapping, but video surveillance isn’t one of the “key issues” listed on its website.
How did this happen? When did we stop worrying and learn to love our surveillance cameras? I’d argue that you can attribute much of the shift to the way a few next-generation security-camera companies have positioned their products—and to a few key technology decisions at these companies that have reduced the risk of privacy disasters.
To find out how one startup has navigated these potentially hazardous shoals, I visited this week with Greg Duffy, the co-founder and CEO of Dropcam. The San Francisco-based company makes a $149 gadget called the Dropcam HD, which connects to your home Wi-Fi network and sends a continuous, high-definition video signal to Dropcam’s cloud servers. You can connect to the servers from any Web browser, iPhone, iPad, or Android device and watch the video in near real time—there’s a delay of a second or two. You can also listen in on the action via the camera’s microphone, and send voice messages back to the camera’s built-in speaker via a push-to-talk feature.
For an extra $10 per month or $100 per year, the company also provides a “cloud DVR” service that stores video for 7 days and lets you save and share the most interesting or important clips, which are automatically highlighted based on movement in the scene. (Think burglars, or perhaps bored pets who’ve decided to shred your important papers while you’re away.)
All in all, it’s the same sort of Internet Protocol-based security video technology that’s been used for years in retail locations, garages, and other public spots. But the video is captured at a higher resolution and a drastically lower price point, and without the hassle of having to store the data on local servers.
The four leading uses for the Dropcam HD, according to Duffy, are home security, child monitoring, pet monitoring, and small-business security. Of course, there are a number of wackier edge cases. More than 100,000 viewers logged on to see video from one boat owner’s Dropcam during Superstorm Sandy. Firefighters have attached the devices to their helmets to help fire chiefs see what’s going on inside burning buildings. One pet-store owner attached a Dropcam to the back of a tortoise, just for fun. In my own case, I used a loaner Dropcam this week to verify that—as I had feared—my dog barks a lot when I’m not home.
Most users leave their Dropcams running all the time, even when they’re home, which means they catch everything people say and do. And I mean everything: in one Dropcam video I saw, a homeowner is absentmindedly scratching his behind just moments before the family cat goes crazy (which turns out to be the cue for an earthquake).
Duffy says he and co-founder Aamir Virani have been thinking and talking about the potential privacy implications of full-time home video monitoring ever since they started the company four years ago. “If you ignore the social issues surrounding the products you create, you are asking for society to use them in a way that you didn’t expect and maybe didn’t want,” Duffy says. He says there are three major protections in place to prevent video from being misused or improperly accessed.
The first is that Dropcam’s site, apps, and cloud DVR are password-protected and private by default. Think of it as the opposite of Facebook or live Web broadcasting services like Justin.tv. “We don’t put the sharing options in your face or make sharing options part of the setup process,” Duffy says. “If you want to share that camera with people in your home, like your spouse, you can do that. If you … Next Page »
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