Community Policing or Big Brother

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1.  Community policing no longer refers to "neighbourhood watch", what exactly is it?

Community policing in the traditional sense can be likened to neighbourhood policing. It’s a policing strategy and philosophy based on the notion that community interaction and support can help control crime, with community members helping to identify suspects, detain vandals and bring problems to the attention of police. Consider it a collaborative effort between law enforcement and the community to identify problems and search for solutions.

Advanced technologies which were once only available to law enforcement and defence personnel are now affordable and commercially available to the every day consumer. So today, we have the capability to conduct “community policing” with a non-collaborative flavour… so what we are witnessing and predicting is that there will be two types of community policing- one which is a collaboration between the police and the community, and another which is entirely community-led, that is policing by the people. It is what we can term sousveillance.

Sousveillance was created in practice by Professor Steve Mann, at the University of Toronto in Canada. And it can be defined as a type of “inverse surveillance” or “counter surveillance”. Plainly it is the “watching of the watchers by the watched; counter surveillance by people not in positions of power or authority.”

We can refer to these individuals as real time auditors of surveillance technologies and of those conducting the surveillance.

2. What type of technology is available to people wishing to spy on others? and what type of people want to spy on others anyway? what are the ethical and legal implications?

There are a whole host of technologies now available to people who “watch”, “spy”, “check up on” others. These include mobile media technologies, like mobile phones that have GPS receivers in them and can track the user anywhere in the globe down to 1-2m of accuracy; there are RFID bracelets or tags used in vehicles or on people such as the ANPR Automated Number Plate Recognition System which uses OCR technology. There are biometrics and even good old CCTV footage that can be used to record people as they move around crowded places etc. Our once bulky and expensive technologies have become miniature and mobile and in some instances can fit on the tip of a ball point pen, or be carried around or attached to belt clips, underbellies of vehicles. There are a whole host of ethical and legal implications such as who has the right to watch another when they are going about their daily business? Who has a right to privacy? to be let alone?  Is it against the law to track another in a public space using technology that is available off the shelf in an overt or covert manner? What does this mean in relation to human rights? Is there anything that can be considered private today?

3. Can this industry be regulated at all or is it too late?

It’s never to late to introduce reforms, but with mobile media that is increasingly becoming pervasive and ubiquitous it might become difficult to police. It is not to say also that someone is not within their right to be taking footage of their surrounds… for instance, a citizen has as much right to monitor their movements, as someone of equal or higher authority… for instance, it is okay for commercial organizations to record everything that happens both inside and outside their building in the name of physical security, but what about the individual?

This is a difficult and complex debate as it all stems from the context. E.g. we come across a lot of signs that tell us we cannot take footage in public change rooms or rest rooms and we should not. But what of other scenarios where you are taking multimedia evidence for your own protection, for your record of events?

There is a web site where there are now over 37K people taking glogs—cyberlogs… where they are taking footage of an event or task within which they are a participant. Is this unethical? It is certainly not illegal? But what if I was an employee of a government department or a large corporation, and wished to conduct sousveillance activities in those buildings? Well, quite possibly I would not have a job… even though trucking organsiations are increasingly making their employees carry automatic loggers and trackers of their rest times, whereabouts, and other details that could be considered personal.

In the UK they have tough laws that do not permit individuals from taking multimedia footage of law enforcement personnel during protests… and in places like the Pentagon you cannot take any footage of the building, save for the heavily surveiled section of the Pentagon memorial to the victims of Sept 11.

4. What are the benefits of community policing?

The benefits of community policing, are diverse if the problem is considered from a variety of contexts…

In the traditional ideal sense of the notion of community policing, having law enforcement personnel closely collaborating with the community is a positive outcome. Change usually happens at the grass roots level, and if the police can establish some rapport with the local community, then the chances are it might actually help reduce crime rates. But this doesn’t mean that all the problems will go away. Where there are organizations that have the best intentions for the community, there are also those who do not and corruption unfortunately can breed corruption.

Some have used the idea of policing the police, watching over the watchers. This cannot hurt… we have all seen footage on television or on Youtube of police not acting in accordance to the law and this has led to some reforms in each of those individual cases.

But the more important matter is one’s right to be taking footage of their own space and to be conducting sousveillance on themselves. If we lose the right to police or record our own activities, then in a way we cease to exist. We all take pictures of our family, loved ones, special events, as a record of our own life… we keep albums at home and home videos…

But community policing when misused can lead to husbands tracking their wives, overprotective parents watching their children by logging on remotely 50 times a day to check where they are, or employers enforcing harsh penalties on employees who do not reach mileage targets for deliveries or other related sales targets based on speed, distance and time factors. There are a whole host of unanswered questions which are not legislated or regulated in the Privacy Act, Telecommunications Interception Act, or even Surveillance Act of Australia.

5. How does dataveillance work?

For some time Roger Clarke’s [30] dataveillance has been prevalent: the ‘‘systematic use of personal data systems in the investigation or monitoring of the actions of one or more persons. Uberveillance is an above and beyond, an exaggerated, an omnipresent 24/7 electronic surveillance. It is a surveillance that is not only ‘‘always on” but ‘‘always with you” (it is ubiquitous) because the technology that facilitates it, in its ultimate implementation, is embedded within the human body. 

The problem with this kind of invasive surveillance is that omnipresence in the ‘material’ world will not always equate with omniscience, hence the real concern for misinformation, misinterpretation, and information manipulation. Uberveillance takes that which was ‘‘static” or ‘‘discrete” in the dataveillance world, and makes it ‘‘constant” and ‘‘embedded”. Consider it not only ‘‘automatic” and to do with ‘‘identification” but also about ‘‘location”. 

Citation: Russell, K. and K. Michael. (2009). "Community Policing or Big Brother?" SBS World View, from

Ian Angell - The Economist

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