At the end of the ’60s, in the embryonic days of cable television, an enterprising executive had an idea. He persuaded the leadership of Olean, in upstate New York, to hook up closed-circuit TV cameras, via the newly laid cables, along the town’s main street. With 20,000 residents, Olean was hardly crime-blighted Manhattan. But when the first-of-its-kind surveillance system was installed in 1968, law enforcement officials from as far away as Israel and Thailand came to marvel at the eight robotic cameras attached to utility poles. Miscreants were also impressed: Not a single crime was attempted during the 18-month run of the experimental network.
After that, there was no stopping video-based crime deterrence. More than 50 million CCTV cameras now watch over the residents of the United States, and four times as many keep Chinese citizens in check. No surprise, then, that in the past five or so years companies like Nest and Ring have been pushing peace of mind in the form of home surveillance cameras. In 2018, some 50 million of them were sold; research firm Strategy Analytics estimates that four years from now, customers will buy 120 million.
The thing is, these companies have been pushing the cameras as stylish additions to a home. But the attempt to reconcile deterrence with a chic image is bound to have dystopian consequences.
Public surveillance cameras come in two forms. One, shaped like a cylindrical bullet, is pretty easy to see and is pointed at a subject—say a person standing at a bank teller’s window—like a shotgun. If the camera is robotic, it can single out and follow a subject or suspect. The second kind, a dome camera typically enclosed in a tinted plastic bubble, is more sinister. People are aware of it but never know who, or what, it is filming.
The home surveillance market, however, is more about friendly design; a security camera that resembles a Nest thermostat or an Amazon Echo is in keeping with the modern, tech-enabled lifestyle. Companies like Polaroid and Hive have even hired sought-after consumer design firms like Ammunition and Fuseproject, whose other products include Beats by Dre headphones and the Snoo robotic bassinet, to design their cameras.
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One irony here: We are increasingly fearful that our smart-home devices are eavesdropping on us, that hackers can crack into our internet of things for fun and profit, that manufacturers listen in on our conversations. (Earlier this year Bloomberg set off a frenzy by revealing that Amazon employees listen to Alexa audio clips.) These days, to equate our home security cameras with our increasingly suspect home devices may no longer enhance a feeling of peace of mind.