During one’s youth, we grow up on playing games where we have to search for an individual. With games such as hide and seek, peek-a-boo, tag, and so forth, we determine at a young age to hide and spot one another. We then encounter what our behaviours might be. Next, we learn what traits are common and acceptable from these occurrences. As we grow older, we still tend to notice details about each other. Therefore, it comes to no surprise that I would later see this trend in academic studies.
On June 15, 2011, I was in search for a surveillance camera, in order to observe and note the behaviours of people passing by the device for a class project. After searching far and wide, I finally found the camera most suitable for this experiment. The camera I chose to observe was located at the Russell House West Wing (1400 Greene Street in Columbia, South Carolina). The following day, I sat near the surveillance camera and let my observations begin.
The model of the camera was a white, Ipela manufactured by Sony. This model is unusual; it does not conform to typical notions of surveillance cameras. The camera is housed inside a glass container and looked more like a street light than a camera. Its disguise might easily dupe anyone who glanced at it. The signs of surveillance were visible, but the camera could easily be mistaken. This could be the reason why most of the people passing by seemed nonchalant.
The placement of the camera is above a door frame and seems capable of rotating to capture more than one view or scenery. The reason I selected this particular camera is because of there being quite a bit of activity going on in the surrounding area. To someone who may not know and get a better visual of the building, of which the camera was attatched to, would mostly resemble a hallway of sorts. In other words, the building was small and narrow. The entrance leads straight to the exit. However, there are a few rooms inside of the building. The surveillance camera’s purpose is to monitor the surrounding area outside the building and to keep any suspicious behaviour from going on.
Many people passed by the camera throughout the time of observation. Being between the library and main campus, it is a site of fairly constant traffic. In addition, there seemed to be orientation for upcoming students going on nearby and employees maintaining care of the lawn.
There weren’t many cases of suspicious activity going on, but there may have been reason behind this. Christopher Slobogin explains, “People who engage in expressive conduct in public know they will be observed” (Slobogin 101). However, most seemed as if they were going on about their day and didn’t seem to notice the camera.
A common trend I noticed about people passing by the camera and going inside the door below the camera, was that they seemed to be looking down and messing with their phone. Albert-László Barabási states, “time-stamped information about our phone conversations sits in our phone company’s vast hard drives” (Barabási 10). Therefore, in actuality, these people were being observed numerous times all at a moment's notice. James B. Rule speaks on the subject, by stating, “many users seem not to know it, cell phones, when turned on, have the potential to track their users’ movements” (Rule 175). Furthermore, Barabási explains, “Indeed, mobile-phone carriers record our location only when we actually are on call” (Barabási 196). Likewise, people coming out of the door didn’t seem to notice the camera at all.
Three people drew my attention. One: a man turned his head away from the camera, and then put on sunglasses. After he passed the camera he turned his head back around. Two: a man, who was talking on his phone, used the sign in front of the camera to scratch his back (he had no free hands). I found this incident amusing. Three: a woman seemed to take a glance at the camera, looked at the door, and then walked away. This was the only instance I counted where someone did seem to notice the camera.
My observation took place at a table near the camera. I tried to sit in the shade as to avoid discomfort during the observation. My choice of location was good, because I had a clear look at each individual’s movements and expressions.
As I sat at the table, I started noticing particularities about the camera’s location. The reason for it being placed so high up is probably to capture and overlook a wide range of activity and to look over the bushes that surround it. Also, the placement may have been to overlook the bike racks for bike theft. It could possibly even be for robbers in the building looking for a quick getaway, who may be travelling by bike than on foot.
However, one thing seemed a bit strange. There was a camera above the front door, but there was no camera above the back door. I would have to question this approach, because it seems there should be two, for security issues, in both the entrance and exit. I have since learned there is indeed a camera in the back courtyard hiding amidst the branches of trees. This camera also resembles a street light, which is the main reason I had a hard time noticing it.
The reason this camera wasn’t placed above the back door frame may be due to the library being nearby. The placement could monitor a wider range, possibly stretching out to the library, than if it were placed anywhere else. However, the resemblance of the streetlight seems strange, because it seems as if the reason for the cameras being there are for people to take notice so that they wouldn’t do any sort of shady activity.
The task of trying to go unnoticed, as to providing a more accurate observation, went pretty easily for me. It seemed as if everyone saw me as another student concentrating on school work, which in part is actually what I was doing. However, most didn’t notice the fact that I was actually observing the surrounding area and their behaviours. In fact, one woman asked me for directions and another group asked me to join their study group. Both cases made me feel as if they were unaware of what I was doing and that I was approachable enough to ask questions without feeling threatened. Therefore, the task of trying to blend in was successful.
At some point during my observation, I became attuned to the work of the surveillance camera. The project started to become more personal to me. It made me feel like if the camera was a living being, then I would know how it felt, hypothetically speaking of course. That is to say, I felt as if I was somewhat functioning like a surveillance camera with all the observing I was doing.
The whole ordeal reminds me of a screening of the film Red Road (2006). The main character, Jackie, works as a surveillance camera operator. During her job she would monitor the television sets overlooking what was going on in the streets. Later in the film she notices a man. She would then concentrate on that one specific individual throughout the film. However, the difference in my case was I concentrated on many individuals at different instances.
Overall, the experience raised questions for me. What was the reason for the majority of the people I observed acting so casually? Is it because we as individuals are immune to having some sense of being watched? If one thinks about it, we are constantly being watched every time we step out in public. Throughout each and everyday, we take notice of what people are doing. This can be instances of chatting with someone, working, or driving your car. Whether we realize it or not, even if it may be for a moment, we are being recognized. Rule states, “Once most people grow inured to monitoring as a normal feature of everyday life, a total surveillance world would work much more smoothly than any alternative” (Rule 181). Considering all the technology available to us, I would have to say that time is approaching. However, Rule brings up another important aspect. Rule explains, “But a world totally without privacy, and hence without the possibility of individual innovation or resistance to authority, would lack something essential” (Rule 187).
The project made me take notice of how we are all like surveillance cameras as well. I’m sure we can count times when we’ve observed certain individuals. If we detect some sort of unusual behaviour, we tend to avoid the situation or come up with a solution to fix the problem. This is the purpose of a surveillance camera, to fix problems. Therefore, the experience did give new insights dealing with surveillance and common behaviours. I realized due to the nature of the project and unsuspicious activity, that most people do seem to be a bit cautious of how they handle themselves.
Barabási, Albert-László. Bursts. The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do. New York: Dutton, 2010.
Red Road. Dir. Andrea Arnold. Perf. Kate Dickie, Tony Curran, Martin Compston. Tartan Video, 2006. DVD.
Rule, James B. Privacy in Peril: How We are Sacrificing a Fundamental Right in Exchange for Security and Convenience. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Slobogin, Christopher. Privacy at Risk: The New Government Surveillance and the Fourth Amendment. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2007.