For a small monthly fee, UK shop owners can have their surveillance cameras watched by Internet users eager to catch shoplifters for a cash reward. But some Internet experts liken the concept to outsourcing police work.
The UK is notorious for its use of CCTV cameras
The United Kingdom is notorious for its widespread use of CCTV surveillance cameras. Now, a new Internet startup is adding a twist to the privacy debate by bringing live streams of footage to viewers online. Devon-based "Internet Eyes" hopes to profit by rewarding Internet users who spot and report shoplifters.
The rewards can be as much as 1,000 British pounds (1,144 euros), and Internet privacy and civil liberties advocates describe the system as a privatization of law enforcement.
Internet Eyes went online on October 4, and its founder, Tony Morgan, said the site has garnered more than 1,000 viewers who have reported more than 135 possible incidents. The site prevents voyeurism by anonymizing feeds, which are switched every 20 minutes.
The UK has a long history of monitoring the public with CCTV cameras
"You can't use Internet Eyes for voyeuristic pleasures," Morgan told Deutsche Welle. "We've made sure that there's no way this can be done. With Internet Eyes you don't know where you're watching."
Service fee for businesses
When a user reports suspicious activity, a text message is sent to two mobile phone numbers selected by the store owner. It is then followed by a picture message of what was on the camera at the time. Immediately after reporting activity, users are transferred to a new feed so they can't see what transpires in the store.
Internet Eyes plans to make its money by charging a 75 pound monthly fee to storeowners who subscribe to the service, making it significantly less expensive than hiring a security guard. The company is providing its service free of charge for three months in the UK in the hopes winning over customers.
"It's very, very inexpensive," Morgan said. "If a retailer doesn't lose more than that (to shoplifting) during the course of a month, then he doesn't need our service. But that's highly unlikely."
Morgan says the UK's Information Commissioner's Office withdrew its initial objections to the service after Internet Eyes agreed to charge users a nominal fee to prevent abuse and limit itself to the European Union.
Likely to struggle on the European level
There have been abuses of over aggressive surveillance in the German corporate environment
But Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger of the Oxford Internet Institute says he believes Internet Eyes will run into trouble when it butts against the European Union's Data Protection Directive.
"Keep in mind that there is a huge risk, given the fact that no Data Protection Commissioner has ruled on this as far as I can tell," he told Deutsche Welle. "They spoke with Information Commissioner's Office, but that doesn't mean anything."
The EU Data Protection Directive creates a "minimum standard" for countries to meet, meaning what is legal in the UK might not be legal elsewhere, according to Mayer-Schoenberger.
"It's an obvious solution given the power of crowdsourcing and Internet economics – namely the fact that there are so many eyeballs out there on the net that can be brought to good use," he said.
Could foster bias and suspicion
Researchers say CCTV cameras are ineffective and intrusive
But regardless of Internet Eyes' legal status, Mayer-Schoenberger objects to the service because of the social precedent it sets. He sees it as the outsourcing of a law enforcement function to amateur private citizens, who have a higher likelihood of biases such as racial profiling.
"Just pressing the button actually causes this scene to be investigated further," he said "That's pretty powerful, I'd say. That means I can direct the attention of law enforcement to something I find suspicious. That's a pretty powerful position.”
Mayer-Schoenberger also said Internet Eyes' built-in reward structure caters to suspicion and a host of other societal problems.
"From a business sense it makes perfect sense," he said. "From a legal perspective, whether or not its legal depends on complicated issues. From a societal perspective, I'd be extremely cautious."
Experts say CCTV ineffective
According to Ross Anderson, a professor of security engineering at the University of Cambridge, CCTV has been shown in research to be ineffective. He described himself as being "shocked but not surprised" by the launch of Internet Eyes.
The founder of Internet Eyes says he's helping small shopkeepers
"It works in car parks, but almost nowhere else," he wrote in an e-mail to Deutsche Welle.
"So in the long run, I expect this business to fail. In the short run, it's a symptom of the way in which many Englishmen were persuaded to abandon their liberties one by one under both Thatcher and Blair. So we might be thankful that policy in Europe is also made by countries like Germany, Poland and Lithuania, with more recent memories of oppression than we have."
Anderson pointed out that the United Kingdom is currently being taken to court by the European Commission for failing to effectively implement the Data Protection Directive.
Protects independent businesses
But Morgan argues his company's service helps small, independent retailers, many of whom can't afford to hire security guards and are struggling to maintain their place in the commercial landscape.
"Isn't it time we started to look after the independent retail chap instead of looking after the people that rob him?" he said. "We do so much to protect those that do the stealing, yet nothing for the poor chap who is trying to make a living."
Author: Gerhard Schneibel
Editor: Cyrus Farivar