We Are the Surveillance State

A well-dressed man wearing a warning sign that says "Under Surveillance"

I have met the surveillance state, and it is us. For years, civil libertarians have fretted and worried about the eyes of the state encroaching on our privacy, but it turns out that we, the people, have opted to surveil ourselves.

A well-dressed man wearing a warning sign that says "Under Surveillance"

This thesis started with Adam Christianson, who pointed me to a couple of new products. The first is a necklace from Ubiquiti called Front Row (via iMore). It’s a camera with a touch screen for people who want to live stream things directly to YouTube or wherever.

So yay.

The second is a much more utilitarian wearable camera on Indiegogo called Streamcam (via Engadget). It’s designed to do pretty much the same thing as Front Row.

So again, yay.


Life Mirrors Art Presages Life

It reminded me of a short story from Dan Simmons, one of my favorite authors. I forget the title—I’m moving and don’t have my books handy—but if I remember, it’s set in the Ilium future. I don’t remember what the story was about, but the element that stuck with me for years are the senior citizens who videoed and broadcast everything.

Distrustful of power, this generation (who are kids now) believed that privacy leads to shenanigans, and they were out to make sure everything was witnessed and shown. In the story, this was a reaction to criminal activity by Swiss banks (if I remember correctly), but that’s not the part I’ve been thinking about. It’s the image of everyone walking around recording everyone else and broadcasting it to the world. That’s what’s been playing in my mind.

We’re seeing it unfold around us even now, decades before Dan Simmons’s story timeframe. The two products above are tiny steps that began with “webcams” and exploded with iPhones and Android devices. We, the people, have not only become comfortable with cameras, we’ve lovingly embraced those cameras streaming us to everyone else.

Amazon Echo/Alexa, Google Home, and Apple’s HomePod are close cousins in that they’re wiretaps we’re willingly placing in our homes*.


We’re early days into this brave new world, too. The walls of privacy are crumbling and aren’t likely to be rebuilt. Cameras will proliferate, and wearable cameras will soon be de rigeur for enough people that it won’t matter that some of us choose not to use them.

What started with porn sites and made mainstream by YouTube, Instagram, SnapChat, and Facebook, will be completed with Augmented reality (AR). Where Google Glass failed, Apple’s rumored eyeware will thrive. Our desire for ready access to information will have everyone who wasn’t already wearing a camera strapping them onto their faces.

To get back to my original point, we’re constructing a treasure trove for the surveillance state. U.S. and foreign intelligence services, as well as law enforcement, already mine social media for information. This includes video content, but as we strap these streaming cameras to our bodies, you can be sure those streams will be monitored, too.

And we’re choosing to do it. The surveillance state hasn’t needed to force these cameras on us, because we’re lining up at stores to pay for them ourselves.

I’m not necessarily arguing that this is bad, either—or least that it’s all bad. John Martellaro made a good case in Thursday’s Daily Observations that we are archiving history, and that this has value. Maybe he’s right, and certainly we, the people, are consuming all this content. My point, though, is that we are doing the surveillance state’s work for it.

And this is dangerous because those cameras can always be turned against us.

*Note that of those three products, only Apple’s HomePod is designed to respect and protect our privacy from the ground up.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.