Domestic privacy issues meet political art

    Photo licensed under Creative Commons.

    Video surveillance cameras are rapidly increasing in metropolises, including Chicago. Photo by zigazou76 on Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons.

    This weekend, the NATO summit arrived in Chicago, and with it came the leadership of the free world as well as the presidents of Pakistan and Afghanistan. While it is a great honor to have the geopolitical upper crust at our city, their arrival has also instigated a notable increase in surveillance. Along with more police decked in riot gear, Mayor Rahm Emanuel greatly escalated the amount of surveillance cameras throughout downtown. Matching efforts in New York, London and various metropolises around the world, Chicago is now a much closer watched city then ever before. 
    This is the atmosphere that welcomed Wafaa Bilal, a professor from New York University, when he came to speak at Northwestern last Friday. Prof. Bilal excels in immersing himself in persistent performance art projects, many of which border on the sadomasochistic. They are also frequently political, and his most recent undertaking exemplifies this: He implanted a camera in the back of his head. This “3rdi” (or “third eye”) takes one picture a day at random, and is used to comment on, among other things, the record we permanently leave behind. While most of the pictures from this project are “rather mundane” by Bilal’s own admission, he believes it has helped him better understand the present, when he is focused “so often on the path of the future.” 
    He has also pursued this body modification to draw attention to the increasing anxiety over the role of privacy, or lack thereof, in modern society. A denizen of New York, Prof. Bilal sees eyes everywhere. He told North By Northwestern that “thousands of security cameras record our image and movement every second almost everywhere in public. With the exception of a few, there is general acceptance of this.” These constant optics “remain invisible” for most people in New York, and have even been embraced as “a fact of life.” This is in contrast to other cities outside America, namely London. Their protest of the city’s security cameras, increased by the need for heightened security during the 2012 Olympics, has impressed Bilal, who notes a near complete absence of similar dissent in the States. Although there are places within the “Home of the Free” that you cannot walk without being persistently observed by electronic eyes, there is little oversight or even public knowledge of the increased surveillance
    In Chicago, there has been a profound increase in both the number and sophistication of these monitoring apparatuses, going from 560 cameras in 2007 to over 10,000 last February in pursuit of a program called Operation Virtual Shield. (Both of these amounts pale in comparison to London’s surveillance network: Over 500,000 cameras.) These devices, some of which can clearly read text messages on street level, are going to be even more common in the Windy City, and former Mayor Richard Daley promised forebodingly that, by 2016, there will be a “camera on every street corner in Chicago.” The questionable efficacy of these networks also breeds suspicion. According to a report by the British government, increased surveillance produces “no overall effect” on crime. With 4 million cameras nationwide, they would know. 
    As ubiquitous as security cameras are, any stationary tool will become outdated in the next couple years. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are drawing down, but soldiers won’t be the only things returning home from overseas. With them comes the newest American weapon of war: unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called UAVs or drones. These human-controlled (or autonomous) robots are often gyrocopters and planes, but have also been known to take an assortment of forms, including four legged beasts of burden and even eerily accurate replicas of hummingbirds. 
    While these drones used to solely be under the purview of military types, their impending arrival to the US has prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to begin integrating them into the public airspace. This has necessitated drafting a law which will expand their use to a large number of public and private enterprises. These will include police inspection of homes from the outside, or by private agricultural companies to survey land. The low price of many of these unmanned vehicles (the cheapest can be built for just over $100) has also attracted the attention of essentially every police force in the country, and local law enforcement has made thousands of requests to obtain the technology.
    While the government prepares for the nationwide proliferation of UAVs, the FAA has done little to address privacy issues, a great concern for observers like Prof. Bilal. “Drones are becoming more and more accessible to the individual, but the consequences have not been fully foreseen or thought of yet,” he warned. Their introduction creates a number of questions for society, not least of which being who can legally use them for intrusive purposes. If the current prevalence of security cameras is any indicator, expect the use of drones by police and private security companies to grow exponentially. Someday, we may all need an eye in the back of our head to counter those constantly watching us. 


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