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Spying on Your Neighbours

November 5, 2010

One of the characteristics one would expect in a ‘surveillance society’ is that surveillance would become seen as a more ‘normal’ reaction to problems at all levels of society. So we start to see instructive stories about surveillance in all kinds of unexpected places. The ‘Home and Garden’ section of the Seattle Times newspaper carries a very interesting report this week on the use of relatively low-cost surveillance systems (some involving digital movement detection) used by ordinary middle-class homeowners to monitor their property and more specifically to catch their neighbours doing very unneighbourly things, such as tossing dog faeces into their gardens or trying to peek in through their windows.

In most of these cases, it seems the surveillance is primarily about defending property and based around specific observed anti-social behaviours. So, is this just a question of the legitimate defence of property rights and privacy (the legal view) or is this any kind of a social problem? I think it is certainly more complicated than just being a question of individuals empowering themselves with technology to do the right thing.

There is a big unvoiced problem behind all of this which is the decline of civility, neighbourliness and trust. It seems that most of the problems are interpersonal ones and would be ideally best resolved not through the secret gathering of information to inform a police investigation, public prosecution or private legal action, but through communication with the neighbours concerned. Richard Sennett, Jane Jacobs and many others have observed that we live increasingly in a ‘society of strangers’. The turn to surveillance not as a last resort but as a ‘natural’ first option, would seem to me not only a recognition of this, but a contribution to the wider problem. We don’t trust our neighbours so we watch them. But in watching them we diminish any remaining trust we had in them, and certainly they lose any trust they had in us.

This adds up. It is social not just interpersonal. It means people accept the diminution of general rights of privacy in public spaces and justifies the intrusion of all kinds of agencies into the lives of individuals and groups. This is only encouraged by government campaigns to watch out for suspicious activity, corporate pleas to all of us to be permanently on guard against ‘identity thieves’, ‘hackers’ and of course, celebrity magazines and websites that encourage a voyeuristic interest in the intimate lives of others.

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