Self-Satire in the Surveillance Society

Adam Price
16 October 2009


Eye of Providence


As Tom Lehrer recognised in the 70s, the line between satire and reality is constantly in danger of being blurred these days. Guy has already mentioned the absurdity of certain proposals for individuals monitoring CCTV over the internet that tax even our limits to despair of them. Guaranteed to have you asking yourself if it’s all just a hoax, or perhaps a bad dream, the website for Internet Eyes -complete with the logo of an eye reminiscent of Big Brother, or the all-seeing Eye of Providence – can only add to the sense of unease already generated by this disturbing scheme.

The FAQs page explains how the new crime-stopping system will work. You receive feedback from the people whose cameras you notified, and they rate your alert according to whether it was right, wrong but in good faith, or just plain silly, which gets you points. The person with the highest points each month receives £1000 GBP. But what about the potential for abuse, and naughty internet pranksters? Well, the good people at Internet Eyes have a solution for that too. You only get 3 free alerts each month, and if you want more you have to pay for the added alerts. Plus, as soon as you alert you’ll be moved on and will view the feed from a different camera.

Of course, the money-making aspirations of the creators of the scheme are fairly obvious; in order to come top of the league tables to earn that thousand pounds, you’ll likely have to purchase extra alerts. Get enough people competing for that and the amount of money you make from selling alerts should easily outweigh the payout at the end of the month. But the obvious nature of their ploy shouldn’t detract from the potential dangers and worrying nature of such a scheme. It’s all very well for Internet Eyes to say that they do “not consider its service is creating a “snoopers paradise”, “snitching” “a game” or “gambling” and will ensure effective measures are in place to prevent this”. While the subject of crime prevention that Internet Eyes are dealing with is a serious one, their ‘service’ is one that does indeed seem to fit certain definitions of gambling, for example, since you are offered the chance to win money on an activity that combines elements of luck (in the random selection of the cameras) and skill (in your talent for observation). And that is the least worrying part of the affair. Admittedly, whether Internet Eyes might come to be seen as a ‘game’ is an open question, but it seems fairly obvious that whether you consider it to do so or not, the scheme can only encourage a society of ‘snoopers’ and ‘snitches’, people who are urged to constantly trawl through the information gathered by an intrusive state and report on the actions of their fellow citizens.

This might be considered an 'efficient use of the resources' when it comes to making CCTV an effective tool in crime prevention, but it has no place in a society that respects a right to privacy. The creep of government and private businesses’ intrusion into individual’s lives is well documented but Internet Eyes is an attempt to get private citizens in on the act too. It is asking us to internalise surveillance to the point where we all become policemen, and enact a kind of self-enslavement for the benefit of the state. Is there any room left for satire when the surveillance society produces such proposals?

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