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Big Brother Is Watching You. . . and He's a Computer

Big Brother Is Watching You. . . and He's a Computer

Schools are increasingly installing cameras to spy on students. The stated reasons include the prosecution of crimes likely to occur at a school such as vandalism and theft, but the cameras also can be used to enforce school rules such as tardiness, truancy and running in the halls

Privacy activists have been lamenting increasing surveillance by cameras and warn of abuse by authorities who have access to them. But two additional trends portend a disturbing new direction.

The first trend: Cameras are increasingly monitoring noncriminals engaged in technically legal behaviour. The second trend: Special new artificial intelligence software is processing video feeds to look for unacceptable behaviour.

The machines are watching us, and they are making judgments about what we do.

Another way of looking at these colliding trends is that we are beginning to offload the human capacity for ethics, morality and good citizenship to computer systems. At the very least, these systems are replacing the traditional role of the nosy neighbor.

So much for the honour system

Troy University, based in the US state of Alabama, has about 11,000 online students worldwide and plans to unveil a new system this northern autumn for catching students who cheat during online tests. The system is made by Software Secure and costs each student $US125.

Fingerprint authentication assures that only the registered student (rather than a smarter friend) is actually taking a test. Special software enables the school to lock the student's computer so he can't search for answers locally or even online. A peripheral device contains a microphone and a camera pointed up at a ball with a mirror surface, which gives the camera a 360-degree view. The audio and video is sent over the Internet for "processing" — and that's where things get really interesting.

Software listens to the audio and watches the video and flags any suspicious noises or movements. School officials or instructors can then check the flagged portions of the feeds and decide whether cheating has taken place.

Software Secure is marketing the system to a wide range of schools and testing organizations that administer tests.

What's really going on here?

Surveillance cameras for catching crooks have existed for decades in banks, jewellry stores, liquor stores and other locations where robberies are likely. Usually, the recorded footage is reviewed only after crimes have taken place. In recent years, "red light" cameras have been deployed as nonhuman witnesses to moving traffic violations. Police in some cities set up cameras on streets, so if a crime is reported, they can check the footage. Airport security areas, Las Vegas casinos, stadiums and other public venues are certain to contain surveillance cameras to catch criminals.

The Software Secure anticheating system would be merely interesting and novel if it weren't part of a growing trend in which software watches noncriminals to enforce ethics, morality and good citizenship, not felony laws. Here are more examples.

The Weymouth and Portland Borough Council in England plans to hide surveillance cameras in trash bins to make sure residents put bins in the right place at the right time. These "TrashCams" will enable town officials to issue tickets and fines of up to 10,000 pounds to residents who put bins in the wrong spot or outside the scheduled pickup hours.

An Illinois school district fired a custodian two weeks ago for exceeding his break time based on evidence gathered by a hidden video surveillance camera in the teachers' lounge.

Schools are increasingly installing cameras to spy on students. The stated reasons include the prosecution of crimes likely to occur at a school such as vandalism and theft, but the cameras also can be used to enforce school rules such as tardiness, truancy and running in the halls.

How that slippery slope works

Is it a good idea to put cameras everywhere to punish noncriminal behaviour? Most people would say no. So how does it happen? It starts with justifying the use of surveillance and then reinforcing the decision, often in the following sequence:

1. Dramatic fears are used for justification. Terrorism and violent crime — such as big, horrifying news events like Columbine and Virginia Tech — are trotted out by people in charge of security to justify cameras everywhere.

2. Cost is another justification. Cash-strapped school districts and other organizations think that cameras can save money. It's cheaper to install 20 cameras and hire one guard than it is to hire 20 guards.

3. When big events do happen on camera, it's news. We hear about most of the high-profile, true-crime, happy-ending events where a real crook is busted with the help of a camera and then brought to justice. These stories build our comfort level with ubiquitous surveillance and strengthen the hand of those who want cameras watching everyone, all the time.

4. Most of the activity caught on tape is noncriminal. Once the cameras are installed, the big events almost never happen — but the cameras are recording everyone anyway.

5. There they are in black and white (and, increasingly, in colour): People doing rude things, bending or breaking minor rules, abusing privileges, cheating, disturbing others, cussing, spitting, cutting in line, using profane hand gestures.

6. The moment of truth comes: What to do about it? Next thing you know, organizations start taking action on every transgression, even when no law has been broken.

On the one hand, there's nothing wrong with people getting caught for being unkind, unethical, using profanity, chewing gum in class, littering and other minor but unpleasant actions. On the other hand, do we want to live in a world where cameras and computers watch our every move and report every minor transgression? Are we heading toward a system where fines are issued on the spot for profanity, like in the 1993 Sylvester Stallone movie Demolition Man?

Are we moving to a society where right and wrong is synonymous with "caught on tape" or "not caught on tape"? Has anyone even noticed that we're sliding down this slippery slope?

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