Citizen Surveillance and the Coming Challenge for Public Institutions

The other day I stumbled over this intriguing article which describes how a group of residents in Vancouver have started to surveille the police as they do their work in the downtown eastside, one of the poorest and toughest neighborhoods in Canada. The reason is simple. Many people – particularly those who are marginalized and most vulnerable – simply do not trust the police. The interview with the founder of Vancouver Cop Watch probably sums it up best:

“One of the complaints we have about District 2 is about how the Vancouver police were arresting people and taking them off to other areas and beating them up instead of taking them to a jail,” Allan told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “So what we do is that, when in the Downtown Eastside, whenever we see the police arresting someone, we follow behind them to make sure that the person makes it to the jail.”

In a world where many feel it is hard to hold accountable government in general and police forces specifically, finding alternative means of creating such accountability will be deeply alluring. And people no longer need the funding and coordination of organizations like Witness (which initially focused on getting videocameras into peoples hands in an effort to prevent human rights abuses). Digital video cameras and smart phones coupled with services like youtube now provide this infrastructure for virtually nothing.

This is the surveillance society – predicted and written about by authors like David Brin – and it is driven as much by us, the citizens, as it is by government.

Vancouver Cop Watch is not the first example of this type of activity – I’ve read about people doing this across the United States. What is fascinating is watching the state try to resist and fail miserably. In the US the police have lost key battles in the courts. This after the police arrested people filming them even when while on their own property. And despite the ruling people continue to be arrested for filming the police – a choice I suspect diminishes public confidence in the police and the state.

And it is not just the police getting filmed. Transit workers in Toronto have taken a beating of late as they are filmed asleep on the job. Similarly, a scared passenger filmed an Ottawa bus driver who was aggressive and swearing at an apologizing mentally ill passenger. A few years ago the public in Montreal was outraged as city crews were filmed repairing few potholes and taking long breaks.

The simple fact is, if you are a front line worker – in either the private, but especially, the public sector – there is a good chance that at some point in your career you’re going to be filmed. And even when you are not being filmed, more data is going to be collected about what you do and how you do it.

Part of this reality is that it is going to require a new level of training for front line workers, this will be particularly hard on the police, but they should expect more stories like this one.

I also suspect there will be two reactions to it. Some government services will clam up and try to become more opaque, fearing all public inquiry. Their citizens – armed with cameras – all become potential threats. Over time, it is hard not imagining their legitimacy becoming further and further eroded (I’m thinking of you RCMP) as a video here, and audio clip there, shapes the publics image of the organization. Others will realize that anecdotal and chance views of their operations represents a real risk to their image. Consequently they may strive to be more transparent – sharing more data about their operations and their processes – in an effort to provide the public with greater context. The goal here will be to provide a counter point to any unfortunate incidents, trying to make a single negative anecdotal data point that happened to be filmed part of a larger complex number of data points.

Obviously, I have strong suspicions regarding which strategy will work, and which one won’t, in a democratic society but am confident many will disagree.

Either way, these challenges are going to require adaptation strategies and it won’t be easy for public institutions adverse to both negative publicity and transparency.

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