Privacy Fast Becoming Obsolete

Almost every move you make is being watched – and privacy is fast becoming obsolete, writes Gerard Wright.

If Hollywood and its movies are America thinking aloud, then a very interesting thought bubble has just appeared over the map of the United States.

The bubble appears, naturally, in the form of a film, Look, which opened in US cinemas this month. It weaves a range of stories with entwining themes of sex, blackmail, crime and alienation, with a twist: every scene of the film is shot from the perspective of a surveillance camera, from the bubble lens above an ATM, to the elevated perspective of the security cameras that are ubiquitous and sometimes invisible, across the US.

As entertainment, the jury will return a verdict by the end of the year. As a statement of the American and world zeitgeist, Look is impeccable in its timing.

The US, like Australia and Britain, has taken fear as a guiding principle, and used it to introduce or justify wide-ranging security and surveillance programs as a means of preventing terrorist attacks such as those in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, in Bali in October 2002, and London in July 2005.

In the US the focus has been on preventing another attack, and protecting the “homeland”. It was the justification for the invasion of Iraq, and for the process known as “data-mining” where tens of millions of phone call records are scoured, and billions of calls and emails are monitored.

On a localised level, there is what Yvonne Cager, a video surveillance marketing manager at Texas Instruments, called the “drive to have more eyes everywhere”. An IBM report last year estimated there were 26 million surveillance cameras in the US, while the iSuppli research company forecasts that international sales of surveillance systems will more than double to 66 million units by 2011.

One of these cameras caught Look’s director, Adam Rifkin, singing along to a song in his car as he passed through an intersection, triggering a red light camera. The image Rifkin saw with the fine that arrived in the mail a week or so later was astonishingly sharp and unflattering.

“I felt violated,” he says, but also inspired. Rifkin began looking for surveillance cameras, and the laws that govern their use. The cameras were everywhere and saw everyone. By Rifkin’s assessment, the average American could expect to be filmed 200 times a day. The laws governing that coverage were surprisingly lax.

“In 37 states it’s legal for hidden cameras to be in dressing rooms and bathrooms,” Rifkin says. “I wanted to throw a bucket of cold water onto the public’s obliviousness about these cameras.”