“‘I woke up to pounding on my door’, says Andrej Holm, a sociologist from the Humboldt University. In what felt like a scene from a movie, he was taken from his Berlin home by armed men after a systematic monitoring of his academic research deemed him the probable leader of a militant group. After 30 days in solitary confinement, he was released without charges. Across Western Europe and the USA, surveillance of civilians has become a major business. With one camera for every 14 people in London and drones being used by police to track individuals, the threat of living in a Big Brother state is becoming a reality.”
– Naked Citizens, a short documentary distributed by Journeyman Pictures
Mini-documentary shines a light on the surveillance state
When warning the public about the excesses of government, corporate, or technological power, it’s very easy to go off the deep end. These topics can lend themselves to a subtle sort of paranoia that borders on reasonable, but often steps over that threshold into crazy town.
When Journeyman Pictures’ Naked Citizens began, I was sure it would be one of those, citing tired cameras per-capita statistics and inferring a nefarious government boogey-man with nothing better to do than harass law abiding citizens. What the documentary is, however, is a sobering look not just at the ubiquity of modern urban surveillance (old hat at this point), but at some of the ways that this incredible level of awareness is being used.
Naked Citizens does not deal in hypotheticals, this is a film concerned with what’s actually happening, today. The documentary shows how there is a capacity to do certain tasks, not all of them good, with the sheer volume of surveillance footage being produced in today’s London. As you can imagine, much of it is startling to see.
There isn’t much here that will blow your mind, in terms of technical ability. One of the earliest examples of a computational watchdog is a simple anti-loitering algorithm, one which monitors a CCTV feed and flags any human silhouette that lingers too long. Though the film finds this distressing (for some reason), it seems like a fairly reasonable way of partially automating human judgement; use computers to flag possible offenses, which are then brought to the attention of a human with the power to tell real from accidental infractions. Naked Citizens does occasionally get a bit carried away with its worrying — but just as often, it hits the nail on the head.
The most interesting bit was the ability to dynamically create and check behavior profiles, letting a computer figure out what “normal” behavior looks like, and flagging any who don’t fit that profile. Whether the odd behavior comes in the form of wearing a heavy coat in the summertime or taking an abnormal route through an intersection, the cameras can and will find your abnormality and obsess upon it.
Urban drone surveillance is also brought up, though I’ve never quite understood how camera mobility makes anything any more egregious, especially when you consider that a city like London is already covered several times over by the static kind.
The truly alarming part, to me, was the segment detailing the practice of posting pictures of suspects for the public to see. It’s just the application of technology to the basic Post Office wanted poster, but now applied to ‘persons of interest’ as well as wanted criminals.
In London, there’s one camera for every 14 citizens
There does seem to be a bit of missing information, however. It’s certainly possible that a team of police raided the apartment of one of their subjects purely on the hunch of a security camera — but I doubt it, especially considering that the subject in question was clearly somehow known to police beforehand. Additionally, things like bugged cell phones or hacked computers are hardly new, nor is the idea that these compromised devices give up all their sensitive information.
This documentary definitely has an agenda, but it’s clear enough, and provocative enough, that you’ll be well-served watching and deciding for yourself. It’s a slickly made piece of video, and not too long, so you won’t have too much trouble pushing through.