Nana Cams: Personal Surveillance Video and Privacy in the Age of Self Embellishment


Craig Klugman

Publish date

Tag(s): Legacy post
Topic(s): Cultural

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

In David Eggers’ novel, The Circle, a fictional internet company creates and encourages users to videostream their lives. Wearing a small camera, people can share every experience of every day with whomever wants to follow them…except to the bathroom. The first streamers become instant celebrities and instant villians. The result is the end of privacy as anyone has known it. The upshot, according to the fictional company, is that if people know they are being watched (or might be being watched), people will behave more civilly. The echoes of Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon notwithstanding, at the end of the book the protagonist suddenly wonders if the recording of all lives comes at too high a cost.

Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Maryland, and (soon) Illinois permit residents in nursing homes to record their life. The goal of these “nana cams” is to empower the elderly and their families to record every interaction in order to catch elder abuse and neglect. Elder abuse may affect nearly 10% of seniors. The Illinois proposal would allow audio and/or video recording if the seniors consent and pay for the equipment. Of course, this move allows responsibility for senior safety to shift away from the public (or care facilities) and onto the shoulders of the seniors. If a senior is abused, it’s his/her fault for not having cameras: Not the state’s for firing all inspectors or not enforcing anti-abuse legislation.

Recordings are not only seen as the answer to problems in nursing homes, but in other areas of life. In Chicago, a red light camera program was supposed to save lives and make streets safer for pedestrians. The only thing the program seems to have done is allow money to pass hands. In New York City, Miami, Denver, and Ferguson, MO, police are wearing body cameras to record their interactions with the public. Proponents cite a reduction in citizen complains, increases in accountability, and calming tense encounters. Academic studies suggest that all of these claims may be overblown and that the cameras themselves may interfere with police duties.

A quick internet search shows many doggy day care facilities with web cams so that a pet parent can log in and make sure that Spot is happy and being treated well. For years, anxious parents have installed nanny cams in their homes to see what their child’s trusted caretaker is doing when left alone. Duxbury, Vermont has 24/7 camera surveillance of its school grounds by recording facilities, students and faculty. Perhaps a children’s body cam will be part of the list of school supplies for a new academic year.

Will the prevalence of cameras and the recording of substantial portions of our lives make us safer? Or is it simply a delusion of safety? The use of such cameras is popular. Surveillance cameras helped nab the perpetrators in the Boston Marathon bombing. Public opinion polls in New York and Chicago found overwhelming public support for surveillance cameras in many places. There are even studies that suggest the presence of cameras does decrease crime. Other studies have shown that public cameras do not decrease crime, they merely move criminal activity to other areas.

The cost of such surveillance is not small. The video surveillance market is expected to be over $37 billion per year by 2015. Most cameras are in public places like parks, commuter trains, airports and banks. These are places where people may conduct private activities but they are in a public venue where there is no real expectation of privacy. The body cams and nana cams are not in public spaces, they are geared to recording what would normally be private spaces and interactions. If you want to visit Uncle Phil in his long-term care facility, be sure to sign a consent to be recorded first. Patient-physician interactions will likely be recorded (this could be good if it helps people to review their interactions with health professionals, but it’s bad for any notion of HIPAA and private health information).

Is the loss of freedom, privacy and civil liberties worth the illusion of safety and protection? These cameras do not prevent crimes or abuse—they simply record that they are happening. Even if monitored (an expensive and tedious proposition), action can only be taken once a misstep is taken, not before it happens. Is it a far step from such cameras being an uncommon option to such devices being ubiquitous and required? New York has over 6,000 cameras, Chicago has over 15,000. If we all record everything all the time, we lose not only privacy but also the ability to be our authentic selves, warts and all. Protecting myself soon becomes an obligation to stream your life, all the time (except for the bathroom as in Eggers novel, where, as one would expect, all doubt of the new technology is discussed and elicit humanity rears it’s natural head).

Even Orwell in 1984, where constant surveillance (mostly audio) means that people behave as the state wants them to, never conceived of a world where people wanted to be watched 24/7. From YouTube to Facebook, people share their most private selves with millions. Surveillance images of the most embarrassing personal moments to the most atrocious acts (anyone seen the video of Ray Rice abusing his fiancée’s unconscious body) are posted and viewed by millions. With the ability to shed all notions of privacy, people have jumped off the cliff like lemmings.

The slope between cameras providing protection, to being required (it’s your fault that you were assaulted because you lacked a nana cam), to boasting (the path to fame is baring all online) is a fine one and if social media has demonstrated anything, the world today views the notion of privacy askance. As I’ve heard many times, “it’s no big deal if you have nothing to hide.” The big deal is that when we surrender, or have taken away from us, the right to privacy, we lose the right to self-determination, safety in our choices and actions, and a fundamental part of what it means to be human. As history has shown, recording does not ensure good behavior, in fact, it encourages the very worst of ourselves.

Sorry Uncle Phil, I won’t be visiting anytime soon.

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