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David Bly: Paranoid or not, you are likely being watched

Most of us chuckled last month when we saw the video of the boat burglar helping himself to the contents of a vessel moored on the Gorge waterway.

Most of us chuckled last month when we saw the video of the boat burglar helping himself to the contents of a vessel moored on the Gorge waterway. The stolen booty included the video camera that recorded clear, identifiable images before it was snatched, guaranteeing that the culprit would soon be getting free room and board at lodgings with lots of stainless-steel furnishings.

That turned out to be the case. When Westshore RCMP officers saw the video as it was being broadcast, they recognized the suspect as a person they already had in custody in connection with the theft of a fishing boat.

The man was nabbed after running the boat aground. His prospects for a career in crime or on the high seas don’t look too good, but at least he can say he was the star of a video seen by thousands.

But then, a lot of us are on video or in photographs these days, whether we mean to be or not. Surveillance cameras of one kind or another are sprouting up all over the landscape, like some invasive species that threatens to rival Scotch broom. Almost everything you do in public (and some things in private) gets recorded these days.

Withdraw money from a cash machine — your face is recorded. Enter almost any public building and you do so under the watchful eye of security cameras. Most stores have cameras installed to deter shoplifters. Police have video cameras mounted on the dashboards of their cars to record their actions, and they sometimes rely on cameras that record licence-plate numbers to help them catch crooks.

Speaking of police, there was a rock group by that name that recorded a chillingly prophetic song:

Every breath you take

And every move you make,

Every bond you break,

Every step you take,

I’ll be watching you.

Sting and the Police recorded that song in 1983 when automatic photographic surveillance was in its comparative infancy. It seemed an exaggeration then; it’s understatement now. You just never know when and where your image will show up. To update an old phrase, “Here today, all over the Internet tomorrow.”

The Chinese government likes surveillance cameras, to state it mildly. In 2007, that country had 2.75 million cameras watching its citizens as part of its Skynet program. Between 2009 and 2011, it spent $16 billion installing more cameras; it’s estimated that the network now consists of as many as 30 million cameras, and more are being installed.

Those cameras are the Chinese government’s eyes and ears. They watch streets, stadiums, taxis, people’s homes, places of worship, schools.

The array of cameras is ostensibly for security, but it’s abundantly clear the cameras are used to stifle dissent and thwart potential enemies of the state.

The cameras mounted around Greater Victoria are, for the most part, intended for benign purposes, such as maintaining security, guarding property, watching traffic, deterring vandalism and nabbing thieves. But as the number of cameras grows, the potential for misuse and abuse grows correspondingly.

As if permanently mounted surveillance cameras weren’t enough, at any given moment, on any given street, dozens of people will be carrying smartphones and other devices capable of recording video and still images. For every person prone (or willing) to do something stupid, there are 10 waiting to capture the moment on video.

Whether for official surveillance or illicit voyeurism, the increasing presence of cameras and other recording devices is cause for concern. We should control the technology; it shouldn’t control us.

The complex technological systems that abound today show how smart we humans have become. How we use these systems shows how stupid we can sometimes be.