Surveillance has been a cause for concern to the public on many levels. In the early days of photography, surveillance was a way to log and keep track of criminals, however in the last twenty to thirty years surveillance has shifted from the focus of criminals to anyone and everyone. From the creation of the panopticon to the dawning of the computer age surveillance has been incorporated into almost every aspect of our lives in the Western world. Whether it be webcams and cell phone cameras spying on us, our smart televisions, Alexa and Siri, those uncanny internet ads that always seem to know our browsing history, and possibly the most recent phenomenon of the ‘Amazon Lock,’ constant surveillance is becoming normal.
The panopticon is an institutional building and system of control that was designed by Jeremy Bentham towards the end of the 18th century. The design was essentially for a prison system that consisted of a large cylindrical building, the centre of which contained a watch tower. Cells for inmates would be placed around the walls of the outer cylinder facing the watchtower. The guards could enter and leave the watchtower by way of underground tunnels and therefore whether there was a guard present or not, the prisoners wouldn’t know if they were being watched. This would induce the paranoia of constantly being under surveillance for the inmates. Although this system was an early version of surveillance for criminals, similar forms of surveillance in the digital world have grown to inhabit personal computers, phones, and even homes.
With the growing popularity of the web-cam, a device that now comes built in to every computer, the possibility of being watched without your knowledge grew along with it. It’s possible (and not very difficult) for anyone to hack into this camera and spy on you, not only through your computer, but your phone as well. Along with the webcam, another phenomena that is eerily a part of digital culture is the constant bombardment of internet ads when surfing the net. The latest ads are targeted which according to a 2017 Wired magazine article is done by “…keyword recognition algorithms or cookies placed on your computer by robots that track you across the internet. Targeted ads are better at getting our attention than non-targeted ads — but they’re still an un-welcome distraction from whatever it is we’re wanting to read.” The reason why these ads are some cause for concern and often create a feeling of unease or paranoia is how much they seem to be aware of our online activity. As the article goes on to explain: “…we feel spied on and invaded, because we don’t think of activities like online shopping or social networking or e-mailing as things we do in public: in fact, we would never want to do them in a very public way.” The discomfort these ads cause us is becoming normal, and something most people have learned to ignore for the most part, but it begs us to ask the question, ‘What is the next step? Where do we go from here?’
Home surveillance is another aspect of our culture that has been relatively incorporated into people’s lives for a while now in both owned homes and apartment buildings. People can instal their own cameras to keep watch over their front doors, and superintendents often utilize this for larger apartment complexes that can even include a television channel that broadcasts this area in real-time to every resident. With the creation of smart phones and smart televisions, owners of these products have been warned against discussing any financial, secure, or criminal activity within the presence of the televisions enabled with voice recognition software that can ‘listen in’ and record private conversations.
One of the newest examples of this paranoia-inducing home surveillance is the introduction of Amazon’s door lock system called the Amazon Key. It’s a digital key that allows the company to leave packages inside of your home. It includes a ‘smart lock’ and a home security camera that needs to be purchased for $250 American. Amazon uses an app that grants one time access to allow the delivery to be left inside. The camera logs the delivery, sending a message to your phone and leaving a recording that is available for you online. The goal of this device isn’t as much about stopping package thieves, but rather to draw you further into an all-Amazon world. By Amazon owning your door they can push more services at you such as grocery delivery, dog walking services, etc. According to a video published by a reporter at the Washington Post who has tried the service: “I live in a neighbourhood with package thieves so the Amazon Lock gave me some peace of mind, but the trade off is giving a lot of power to a company that already has a ton.” Although this service might seem enticing, it appears equally as concerning to consumers who are interested in purchasing the product. Amazon may hope that it’s possible that this service will take off, but the real question is, are people ready for Amazon to own their doors?
From the creation of the panopticon, many aspects of surveillance have changed including the distance from the public. Now it’s not only possible to have cameras on our devices, but a growing amount of them outside, in stores, attached to stop lights and watching the sidewalks. Although these persuasions are explained as being a safety mechanism, they are also a way for the public to be watched which gives ultimate power to those who do watch. In the digital age these methods of surveillance will only continue to invade more aspects of our private lives.
Salmon, Felix. "The Uncanny Valley of Advertising." Wired. June 03, 2017. Accessed February 04, 2018. https://www.wired.com/2011/04/uncanny-valley-of-ads/.
WashingtonPost. "We tried Amazon Key. The strangers it let in our door wasn't the worst part." YouTube. December 07, 2017. Accessed February 04, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9kbFfGrGm_Y.