Suburban Mom Embraces The Surveillance Society

Over on Dave Farber’s IP list, Greg Brooks sent in an interesting note about a story from the Riverside (CA) Press-Enterprise about how a suburban mom had tracked down the kids who toilet-papered her house. Greg wrote:

  • “She canvassed local stores to see which one had a run on toilet paper.
  • She then got the manager of the store to show her surveillance videos, allowing her to see the personalized letterman’s jacket of one of the purchasers, as well as the license plate of the vehicle they got into.
  • Finally, she used a high school yearbook (matched to the school based on the letterman’s jacket) and online databases to get the names, phone numbers and addresses of all the teens spotted in the store tapes.”

Greg put a negative spin on this, saying “we’re pretty far down the road to sheepdom when average citizens start thinking ‘well, everything’s monitored all the time anyway – let’s see if I can make use of that.'” I don’t see it that way at all. This “news from the future” story tells us that the vision of David Brin’s Transparent Society is starting to come to pass. Brin argues that we need to accept the reality of pervasive surveillance, and just make sure that it is democratized, so that the surveillance is not just by those in positions of power, but of those in power. While the mom in question wasn’t “watching the watchers” (a phrase that entered the language with the Roman poet Juvenal nearly 2000 years ago), she was taking the tools of surveillance into her own hands. That’s anything but “sheep.”

Dylan Tweney made the same point in a followup posting on IP:

As YouTube proves, we are far more adept at watching each other than the government could possibly be. In the future, it’s not “Big Brother” that will be watching us, but millions of Little Brothers. Maybe that’s a little creepy. On the other hand it can work both ways. And if the surveillance extends to the halls of government (and those who work in government) then we will have an unprecedented level of transparency into the workings of our democracy. We’ve already got C-SPAN — what we need now are a hundred thousand webcams all over Washington. Especially in our representatives’ offices.

In this regard, see Nikolaj’s recent post about theyworkforyou. As I mentioned the other day, we’re starting to see some unusual spins on surveillance technology. People adapt. The future changes us.