The recent passage of U.S. President Bush's domestic wiretap and email spying legislation (FISA) makes this an appropriate time to review how video technology plays into the ever-decreasing privacy of citizens of the U.S. and other countries.
There are two main areas of concern: watching us, and watching what we watch. Sometimes both get combined.
Surveillance video is everywhere, as many readers of this space know better than most. The number of surveillance cameras globally has exploded over the past few years, and the end is nowhere in sight. While this is great for the market for video cameras, analytics, storage, and other businesses, and it's rarely an engineer's responsibility to weigh the societal implications of his or her work, as citizens we must all sometimes take a step back and ponder the bigger questions of where things are heading.
Fortunately, "private spaces" still exist, where these surveillance cameras don't see. Our homes remain relatively free of video surveillance -- at least most of us think so, unless we install it ourselves for home security, and in the U.S. there is hopefully a court order to surreptitiously install it! Plus the increasing use of IP surveillance cameras with built in analytics may actually mean that, as time goes by, far fewer surveillance images are actually viewed by police and security agencies, despite the increasing number of cameras. (Because intelligent cameras will only transmit images of something suspicious.)
Potentially more troubling, in terms of privacy invasion, are the new technologies that track what we watch. There are many examples of this viewer tracking already, including TiVo, YouTube (and practically all of the Internet for that matter), and VOD services from cable-TV and cell phone companies, to name a few. But as the cable-TV industry's little-known (outside the industry) "Project Canoe" takes off, ads on cable-TV will become specifically targeted to each individual household, based in part on tracking what people watch -- and that means every program they watch, not just on-demand titles.
For advertisers, the biggest problem with targeted commercials is that -- except for people living alone -- many TVs are shared by several members of a household. How does the TV or set top box know who is watching? Many schemes have been devised over the years to address this issue, including buttons on remotes for people to voluntarily log in, and electronically profiling people based on how they use the TV -- how quickly they change channels, which channels they go to, etc.
The most invasive approach of all combines the first thread of this blog with the second, by actually putting a video camera into the living room, to see who is watching.
There are many shades of gray here, but having in-home cameras that spy on us, ostensibly so that advertisers can know who is watching what, is going too far.