It's SnitchCam time!

Originally published 2004 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


More and more video cameras peer at us with each passing day. Ubiquitous video surveillance used to be science fiction; now it's a real civil-liberties issue. If you're a politician who's decided to bang the law and order drum, it's now hip to promise surveillance cameras all over the place. It's cheaper than the traditional promise to draft every second citizen into the police force, especially if you don't actually hire anybody to watch the camera feeds.

Miserable zero-privacy Orwellian societies, though, can't be created purely by the efforts of right-wing crypto-fascist governmental bureaucracies (man). They require the cooperation of citizens, eager to turn in their neighbours and relatives for a reward.

Technology will soon offer a new and exciting way for people to be gleeful, vindictive snitches. Or, by using the exact same tech, fearless opponents of governmental oppression.

This is how it's gonna go down.

Lots of private citizens own camcorders today, but they don't generally walk around recording constantly on the off-chance that something exciting might happen.

Just the same, though, when camcorders became affordable, news changed. Suddenly, there was a good chance that someone with a camcorder would be within shooting distance of every fireworks factory blaze, monstrous freeway pile-up, flood or tornado. The amateur footage might be wobbly, low-res and accompanied by a soundtrack chiefly composed of amazed profanity, but hey, there's the 767 hitting the building, folks.

All of these impromptu camerapeople haven't really done much that's in the public interest (though they've produced plenty of video in which the public is interested...), but it's possible that the next wave of even more pervasive video devices will.

Already, you can buy cheap micro-camcorders that run from AA batteries and record onto increasingly cheap Flash memory cards. Current models can store hours of VHS-quality - or better - video on one card.

These gadgets are great toys, and somewhat useful. The cheap ones can't compete with regular camcorders for image quality, mainly because their lenses are lousy, but I know which one I'd rather strap onto an R/C aeroplane.

Solid-state cameras' lenses are going to get better, as is their sensor resolution and price per hour of video capacity. The frame rate's already there, for a few current baby-cams; all you need is 25 to 30 frames per second. And they're going to get even smaller.

It's already possible to install a digital still camera of highly questionable quality in a pair of Buddy Holly sunglasses. A 25-frame-per-second, 640-by-480 video camera with 24 hours of storage is not at all out of the question in a few years.

If it's OK for the gadget to be the size of a pack of cigarettes, we'll be seeing them even sooner. A camera module that size will fit nicely behind the rear-vision mirror of a car. We've pretty much got such things already. Hold that thought.

Tiny-cams will be sticking with local storage for the time being, but there are more than a handful of long-range wireless Internet access technologies out there already. I won't be surprised if the only local storage in many digital cameras ten years from now is a bit of buffer memory.

Remote storage won't just be a convenience feature. It, plus some suitably durable encryption, will make these cameras real agents for social change. One way or the other.

See, I have this idea. I call it the SnitchCam. The idea's applicable to tiny wearable cameras, but for starters it can be a bigger camera that looks out through the windscreen of your car - like the ones mounted in some police cars already. It records everything it sees. Maybe it's got a ton of local storage, maybe it's just got a rolling one-hour buffer.

You've got a button on your steering wheel, with which you can tell the camera to squirt the next half hour, and the last half hour, out into the ether for examination at SnitchCam Central.

If your video clip shows someone doing something for which they should be booked, they are. And if they end up paying a fine, you get a cut.

(If you try to Fight Da Powa by submitting numerous inappropriate clips of nothing/your dog/your naked body, they'll take your SnitchCam away.)

SnitchCams probably wouldn't be any good at catching speeding motorists (I'm happy to say... for no particular reason...), because only quite drastic speeding is obvious merely from video footage. Accurate mobile speed-gun work requires radar, and integration with a well-calibrated speedometer, which regular consumer automobiles usually don't have.

Various forms of dangerous driving, though, should be quite clear in SnitchCam footage. With adequate image resolution, frame rate and cryptographic protection of the data, righteous vengeance will be wreaked upon automotive menaces of all kinds.

That's small potatoes, though.

An open SnitchCam-ish system - with footage sent in real time to as few or as many people as you like, anywhere in the world - could be a real force for good.

Right now, it's hard to prove that (for instance) riot police really beat the crap out of innocent people at a demonstration. Current camcorders are too obvious, and too fragile; they and their users become targets when someone - on either side of the riot shields - doesn't want their deeds publicised.

The evidence from one video camera can be pretty flaky, too. Careful editing can transform violent anarchists into innocent victims, and vice versa, and that's before you start thinking about near-future Pixar-on-every-desk computing power letting people create their own realistic video from scratch.

Live streaming video from multiple cameras operated by lots of people at the same time, though, will be a different matter. Even without cryptographic jiggery-pokery, it'll be practically impossible to get away with even minor editing-room spin doctoring, if thousands of people around the world have the original footage on their hard drives.

If at least two cameras are looking at a given event and lots of people can receive the broadcast, faking something up suddenly becomes about as easy as faking the Moon landings.

Historically, the primary markets for inconspicuous portable video products have been private eyes and perverts (two sets with a significant overlap). But wireless SnitchCams in all shapes and sizes could be an evolutionary endpoint for today's not-too-useful mobile phone cameras, and I can see them being a lot more popular.

Don't ask me what Sweeping Social Changes will be caused by such pervasive cameras; my ability to foresee techno-consequences stops at the certainty that it's a bad idea to let anyone called Brundle near a teleporter.

SnitchCams could easily create a privacy disaster, for instance, and noticeable wearable ones could put users at considerable risk. I wouldn't like to be wearing SnitchSpecs in the bank queue when six guys wearing balaclavas run in.

I just can't wait for life to get difficult for 318i drivers with mobile phones on their ears who change lanes without indicating.

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