Internet Eyes : Be perfect, your fellow citizen is watching you!

Crime deterrent or “snoopers’ paradise”?  Online game or “serious business”? The opening this November of the website “Internet Eyes”, which awards points for people monitoring CCTV cameras and denouncing real crimes, has sparked much debate in the UK. The country is getting closer to a “Big Brother-ish” society. But even George Orwell had not thought of turning citizens into snitches!

(Article datant de décembre 2009)

“This could turn out to be the best crime prevention weapon there’s ever been.” Tony Morgan was quite proud to unveil his new concept last October: a website called “Internet Eyes” which enables people to take part in the fight against crime. The principle of the website is simple and looks like a normal online game. People subscribe for free on the website and can watch live up to four CCTV cameras installed in shops, businesses and town-centers in the UK. If viewers witness a crime in progress, they can alert the owner of the camera via SMS and MMS. The “players” collect points and the best informer wins 1000£ at the end of each month.

On Internet Eyes’ homepage, the catchy phrases read: “Aid crime reduction and be rewarded for your actions. How does a reward of £1000 a month sound?” But not only is the website aiming at people who want to feel useful, try to win easy money, and who are not afraid of spending boring hours in front of their computers. Internet Eyes is also targeting those who run a business and would like the CCTV system they paid for to be more efficient. “There are over four million CCTV cameras in the UK and only one in a thousand gets watched” says Tony Morgan to justify his undertaking. James Woodward, computer specialist and co-founder of the website, makes the same case: “CCTV isn’t watched, it isn’t monitored, and not enough cameras are watched at any one time. What we’re doing is we’re putting more eyes onto those cameras so that they are monitored. »

Making CCTV more efficient
Internet Eyes’ creators have a point. Indeed, several reports are showing that the police don’t use CCTV properly. Last August, an internal report commissioned by London’s Metropolitan Police estimated that in 2008 just one crime was solved per thousand CCTV cameras in the capital. The problem is that it is humanly and financially impossible to put a police officer behind every CCTV camera that exists in Great Britain. The CCTV system is victim of its own success ! Moreover, it would take unimaginable time to rewind recorded films and look for the suspect for each case. The only solution seems to be live surveillance, so that it can be preventive. For now, hoodlums tend to know that the camera which is supposed to deter them from acting is actually unwatched.

Therefore Internet Eyes hopes to reduce crime and gain the confidence of private business owners, so that they accept to pay the weekly 20£ subscription in order to get their cameras monitored by the public. Morgan and his partners are banking on a deterrent effect: when the system has proven his efficiency, they plan to display “Internet eyes patrols here” signs on the shops’ front doors. On its webpage, Internet Eyes proudly spreads out the equation “Increased crime detection = Greater deterrent = Reduction in stock loss”.

Now, even before wondering if it is morally acceptable, one should ask himself a more basic question: can it work? The website is counting on the viewers’ activity, as Morgan puts it: “Crimes are bound to get missed but the cameras will be watched by lots of people 24 hours a day.” Are they really many people who are prepared to spend their time watching unfrequented shops or streets, knowing that only one person each month will win the prize? TV addicts and digital natives may have idle hobbies, but still. Tony Morgan affirms that “it gives people something better to do than watching Big Brother when everyone is asleep.” From Big Brother reality show to Big Brother society, there is only one small step. And that could be the center of the problem. Is England, along with other countries, turning into a nation of watchers?

Something rotten in the kingdom of snoopers
The first thing that seems weird in this project is the awkward mixture between a so-called “game” and a crime detection service. The system based upon virtual points and money rewards could be an open door to a race for denouncement. To say nothing of its immoral aspect: the website wants to attract people by promising them money to denounce their fellow citizens! Tony Morgan says it is just a way to motivate people: “I wanted to combine the serious business of stopping crime with the incentive of winning money.” One could notice that, after all, it is not far from the “WANTED” signs with a “generous reward” offer stuck up on the walls in the Far West days.

But at that time sheriffs were chasing criminals. In Internet Eyes’ world, the notion of crime is far broader than that and not necessarily as epic as one could think. On the website, it is specified that “shop lifting”, “burglary”, “vandalism”, and “anti social behaviors” are to be denounced. In concrete terms, that means you can earn points in the game by spotting people spitting or throwing papers on the floor, leaving their dogs’ mess on the pavement, putting rubbish in the wrong bins, or committing the most minor misdemeanors while driving their cars! Imagine all the small offences you can do… Surveillance society is entering a new dimension, on a “Big Brother” scale.

The Daily Mail also reports that Internet Eyes’ website has planned “to feature a rogue’s gallery of the so-called “criminals” along with a list of their offences and which internet user caught them”. Such initiatives make the civil rights campaigners hop mad, and call the website a “snoopers’ paradise”. Charles Farrier, of No CCTV, condemned a “distasteful and worrying development” and said “this is a private company using private cameras and asking private citizens to spy on each other. It represents a privatisation of the surveillance state”.

Internet Eyes’ owners say that if there is anything to blame in the story, it is the CCTV system in itself, but not them, who are just trying to make it work. “Everybody is on camera already, it is just that no one is watching the cameras” points out Tony Morgan. In this game, people from other countries can sign up and monitor the cameras. In the long haul, Morgan even envisions a worldwide system. Some people see it as a step forward in crime prevention. But one should wonder about the morality of it and think over the phrase: reign in the “snoopers’ paradise”, serve in hell.

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