A UK company has said that it would like to set up a program called Internet Eyes which would allow ordinary citizens access to government CCTV camera feeds which they could observe for the purpose of reporting crime. People that spot the most crimes taking place would receive a financial reward. The pilot program would start in Australia, where, because of the time difference, citizens could log on and watch overnight feeds from the UK during the day. It is hoped that this program will help UK law enforcement reduce crime and even fight terrorism.
Besides the Big Brother factor of having people ordinary citizens spying on each other, I have a lot of reservations about this sort of program. While I have long been an advocate for encouraging citizens to report crime or things of a suspicious nature as an important tool in the fight against terrorism, I feel like this program is another example of an unfortunate over-reliance on technology. Programs that involve citizens work best when the participants actually live in the area and are familiar with what should be going on there. For example, if a strange truck starts parking across the street from a church or synagogue for several days in a row, a local person would know that this is unusual and might think to report it to the authorities. Reporting out of the ordinary occurrences like this can stop a robbery or an act of terrorism before it takes place. Someone sitting at home in another country would not know that the truck doesn’t belong there. They may be able to spot a mugging or someone breaking into a car, but the crime is already being committed. By the time they alert the authorities and help arrives on the scene, the damage will probably have already been done.
Additionally, I think that any program that relies on ordinary citizens needs to include a certain amount of education and training. If people know what to look out for and when they should report something to the authorities, there would be a much greater potential for success. In Israel, a lot of crimes are stopped and terrorist attacks are prevented because the citizenry has been trained to be aware of certain behaviors or scenarios and when to report them to the authorities. My concern with the UK program is that if that if you have people who aren’t properly trained, who have a financial incentive to report something, then the system is going to be so flooded with false alarms that it would be useless.
Giving people access to the UK’s extensive CCTV system also has the potential to be abused. If the participants are not going to be screened or supervised in any way, what is going to stop someone from using that access for more nefarious purposes? The feeds are supposed to change constantly to random cameras, but would allowing people access to the system make it easier to get to specific feeds for longer periods of time? What if thieves or terrorists could use the feeds to case a business or government building? That is clearly not a good idea. And if people are getting constantly changing feeds from random cameras, how are they even going to know what they are looking at?
If the UK government wants to engage everyday people in the fight against crime and terrorism, I think neighborhood watch programs would be a much better option. Neighborhood watch programs have been around for decades and are proven to be effective at reducing crime. There is an educational component to the programs which teaches the participants how to monitor their neighborhoods effectively, and they encourage people to take more responsibility for their communities which has benefits that extend beyond crime reduction. Relying on technology that should probably not be generally accessible that will be used by people in a distant country that have no knowledge of the communities that they are policing, is an unnecessarily complex solution to a problem that could better be handled by the people who are actually being affected.