Consumer surveillance good but risks lurk in the background

Posted on by Grace Chng

Increasingly many homes have installed surveillance cameras for safety reasons. In the past, footage is kept on the home owner’s hard disk for seven days after which it is deleted, new data is re-written over it. With the advent of consumer cloud in recent years, the footage can be stored virtually for as long as the owner wants. Further, the footage can be shared with other people.

Vendors like Amazon and Google Nest have launched their surveillance products. Amazon Ring video doorbell and Neighbors, its accompanying social media app, provides a social network platform. Ring is a doorbell that comes with a camera, motion sensor and cloud service.  Someone approaching the home will trigger the motion sensors. The camera is activated, footage is captured which is sent to the home owner’s mobile phone, allowing him to see who is visiting him. Footage is stored in the cloud.

Knowing who is at the door is good for safety reasons. This offers a security bubble which is technology making a good impact, said lawyer Jeffrey Blatt.

With Amazon’s Neighbors app, neighbours using the service can post to the cloud and share their video clips with their neighbours. The platform can also be linked to the police portal where it become the extended eyes and ears of the police. All good so far.

Herein lies the conundrum: Sharing images with the police blurs the line between corporate and government surveillance. When does private images become public images? Who is managing and securing the data? It is buyer’s beware now, said Blatt who spoke about Ring, The Rise of Ubiquitous Consumer Surveillance Systems at Day 2 of the RSA Conference 2019 Asia Pacific and Japan.

Blatt highlights that with Neighbours, surveillance has become a 24/7 operation. The always-on scenario brings to mind George Orwell’s 1984 book where one theme highlights the Big Brother concept of an overbearing authority. 

Another danger is the sharing of images which can cause racial and religious prejudices. Police seeing a person with darker skin may automatically flag him as a potential bad guy. Is this pre-crime as shown in the movie Minority Report where police taps the psychic capabilities to predict crimes so that they can be prevented. Is society moving this way?

The answer is not so clear cut. Blatt who has experience in cyber law and privacy reiterates that there is a lot of good to having surveillance cameras. A neighbourhood watch concept is a positive development because it allows the community to play a role in public safety.

However, this “crime and safety” impact can also be a fount for racial stereotyping. There is no stopping the development of smart homes and devices which is putting tools like cameras and sensors in hallways and corridors, porches and doorbells. Adoption of these devices will pick up as smart cities and digital transformation pick up speed.

However, technology is a double-edged sword. The reporting and sharing of information collected by the devices is getting easier than it used to be and its application is also widening.

What can people do about this? Blatt’s talk is timely as the trend of smart homes and smart devices is just picking up in Asia. More awareness needs to be raised on this issue. Ultimately, home owners and end users must be techie-wise, aware of the consequences when they use such devices and solutions.


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