Crime never sleeps, and now thanks to a new surveillance project, neither do the crime fighters.
A company in Devon in southwestern England has launched a new website that pays citizens to monitor live commercial CCTV footage online in an effort to catch would-be criminals. Internet Eyes will pay up to £1,000 (approximately $1,600) to those who regularly report suspicious activity, such as shoplifting.
The subscribers have access to four screens at the same time, and if they spot any anti-social behavior, they can press an “alert” button, which sends an instant text and picture message to the shop assistant or manager, who then decides the course of action.
Internet Eyes Founder and Managing Director Tony Morgan told The New New Internet he got the idea four years ago after watching a news segment about CCTV not being adequately monitored. Many of those stories suggested crime-fighting Peeping Toms with their eyes glued to CCTV in real time would have helped prevent crime. In the surveillance tool, Morgan saw the possibilities of a powerful deterrent.
Morgan, a former nursing home owner, also had in mind his fellow hard-working entrepreneurs.
“I also felt that the time had come to help the small-business man – if someone has worked 12-14 hours a day, surely they should be entitled to take precautions to protect their property,” he said.
When Internet Eyes launched in early October, Morgan said the website experienced unprecedented traffic in the first 90 minutes, equating to serving up just under 95,000 unique page impressions in less than two hours.
Still in its beta phase with limited options, Morgan said the website is well on its way of its first goal of reaching 3,000 viewers and 30 businesses. The subscription service currently only cover U.K. security cameras, but anyone from Europe can sign up to be a crime-fighting subscriber.
While shop owners have expressed gratitude for such a project, privacy advocates have decried the initiative as distasteful and one that encourages citizens to spy on each other. Morgan, however, said his company has taken steps to protect citizens’ privacy. All viewers have to subscribe to become members, a measure that acts as a barrier to entry and prevents voyeurism, he said. The registration process also verifies identity and age, followed by a monthly membership fee of roughly $3. Viewers can also watch for only 20 minutes, and they are banned from viewing footage in their local area.
“Remember, there are numerous webcam sites where a viewer is able to dictate which camera feed they visit,” he said. “With Internet Eyes, you have no control over the camera you monitor; you are unable to view cameras within your own postcode prefix and you have no pan tilt, or zoom facility.”
Lance Cottrell, a privacy advocate and chief scientist at Abraxas Corporation, said his first impression was that the project seemed inefficient, requires an “awful lot of time,” and could lead to unexpected consequences such as false positives, stalking and racial profiling.
“After an initial surge of interest, you’re going to see this turn into an expensive waste of time,” he predicted.
Commenting on the possibility of a similar project taking root in the United States, Cottrell said Americans have demonstrated a less-tolerant attitude toward that kind of surveillance. He did, however, acknowledge some positive aspects with the project, calling it an interesting move from an openness point of view.
“One of the interesting upsides to this is it makes very transparent exactly what is being surveyed and where,” Cottrell said. “It makes it much less of a black box, where you don’t really know if you’re being watched or by whom or what’s been done. It does have the interesting effect of leveling the playing field and making the process much more symmetric.”
“It is more of a social experiment, I think, than something that will be effective,” he added. “If there was an office pool on the matter, I would bet that the practical impact will be almost completely negligible.”