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Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: All-Seeing Technology
How many times have you been on candid camera today?
Over 10 years ago I had the very first black and white sub-miniature electronic camera using a single charge coupled device and ball lens. After experimenting for a few days I took the radical step of drilling a hole in my security badge and mounting the camera at the back. I then wore it while giving a lecture to a 600 strong audience and at a suitable point I operated a switch secreted in my pocket to put the image from the camera up onto a large 4m screen. As I stepped into the audience the person I was addressing suddenly saw their face full size on the screen. The reaction from the subject and audience was breathtaking.
The discussion that followed quickly focused on the implications of this new camera technology and what it might do. At that time no one could see that a crude black and white technology costing over £500 would, by today, be full colour and high resolution, and less than £5. Not only are today's cameras smaller and less power hungry, their performance is far superior to those of a decade ago, and they are now being mass produced for installation in mobile phones, laptop computers and all manner of security devices.
Since that first experiment I have been engaged in many discussions and debates regarding the deployment of cameras and their general acceptability. The UK has the largest population of street and store cameras per capita than any other nation and a growing population of speed cameras. All are visible and very easy to recognise. But what isn't generally recognised, understood or seen are the growing number of near invisible cameras that are being deployed.
As a general rule people in Europe and South East Asia are reasonably accepting of street and security cameras as a part of everyday life. The population of North America, however, seems more paranoid. Social pressure often rules out the use of cameras on any pretext. Violating civil liberties is always cited as a reason for non-deployment, while in other societies cameras are looked upon as a friend in terms of establishing and maintaining security for families and loved ones.
Perhaps most worrying are cameras on mobile phones which can be used discreetly for dubious and questionable objectives. In the mobile phone industry there is considerable ballyhoo about them and how the industry will profit from their presence. But I think the TV adverts and marketing people have got it completely wrong for several reasons.
Historically, every time the human race has created better and more portable camera technology it has been immediately employed for lewd applications followed by the absolutely trivial as the costs reduce further. But where are the really important applications for society?
I think we should look to the medical arena where every district nurse, GP and paramedic can be armed with mobile cameras - a powerful tool in the armoury of telemedicine and telecare. Being able to photograph or transmit a movie of a patient or condition for distant consultation is going to be powerful if heath systems can adapt to that change. And of course the implications for policing, fire services and the military are equally profound.
I really don't see people standing in their street with a telephone held at arms length shouting that they are doing video conferencing. What I do perceive is a raft of new and overlooked business opportunities. There is the potential for every member of society to be roving reporters for the media. It might be an aircraft coming into land with an engine on fire, a car crash, a building on fire or indeed an altercation in a public bar. All these events can now be witnessed electronically and recorded.
There is then an immediate opportunity for every owner of a mobile phone to have something to sell. If you happen to spot a celebrity in unusual clothing or engaged in some activity that is of value to the media, then you and your mobile phone have something to sell. If you so choose.
And just suppose every vehicle on the road was to have forward, backwards and sidewards pointing cameras, plus internal cameras wired into a black box flight recorder. Any act of vandalism or theft or an accident could be recorded for later analysis.
Is this a likely proposition? I think so. Top end manufactures are already installing cameras inside vehicles and I think it only a matter of time before we employ outward looking cameras too. The inclusion of accelerometers that detect hard breaking, excess speed, acceleration or indeed any violent movement in the steering of a vehicle could trigger not only a save-and-freeze function but also transmit to some safe site via a wireless link.
But there is much, much more to come. Clothing with embedded cameras and flight recorders are being experimented with and so are many other alternatives. Electronic stores are already selling a wide variety of wireline and wireless miniature cameras for home and office security applications - it is only a matter of time before this technology appears in everything applicable to us and our children.
What kind of society will it be? One very different from today! I can foresee a time when people are more guarded in what they say and do compared to today but like the street camera and those already in stores we may gradually relax and ignore their presence.
If you are worried about the prospect, then the next time you are in a hotel corridor, elevator, restaurant or parking lot carefully look around and see if you can spot the camera(s). I can assure you they are out there and everything you do is seen and may even be recorded.
After counting 32 London street and store cameras in less than 10 minutes, this column was typed on my Apple G4 laptop during an easyJet flight to Glasgow and despatched to silicon.com two weeks later from a London office via a free Wi-Fi link.