All eyes on the city

Like some rogue branch of the independent film industry, private security firms are now installing what The New York Times calls “one of the most comprehensive high-tech public surveillance systems in the world,” and they’re doing it in China.

[Image: Surveillance cameras for sale in China; photo by Timothy O’Rourke for The New York Times].

While these cameras and other forms of remote sensing are being installed to keep Olympic athletes and their screaming fans safe during the coming summer’s Games, the worry is that the surveillance will simply stay put:

Long after the visitors leave, security industry experts say, the surveillance equipment that Western companies leave behind will provide the authorities here with new tools to track not only criminals, but dissidents too… Indeed, the autumn issue of the magazine of China’s public security ministry prominently listed places of religious worship and Internet cafes as locations to install new cameras.

Think of it as the becoming-cinematic of urban space. Some of the technologies being installed include, but are not limited to, the following:

Honeywell has already started helping the police to set up an elaborate computer monitoring system to analyze feeds from indoor and outdoor cameras in one of Beijing’s most populated districts, where several Olympic sites are located. The company is working on more expansive systems in Shanghai, in preparation for the 2010 World Expo there – in addition to government and business security systems in Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Nanjing, Changsha, Tianjin, Kunming and Xi’an. General Electric has sold to Chinese authorities its powerful VisioWave system, which allows security officers to control thousands of video cameras simultaneously and automatically alerts them to suspicious or fast-moving objects, like people running. The system will be deployed at Beijing’s national convention center, including the Olympics media center. I.B.M. is installing a similar system in Beijing that should be ready before the Olympics and will analyze and catalog people and behavior.

And so on.
James Mulvenon, director of the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis, remarks that “the pace of technological change means that products with mainly civilian applications, like management computer systems with powerful video surveillance features, [have] blurred the distinction between law enforcement and civilian technologies.” And it’s in that blurring that some U.S. security firms have potentially brushed up against the outer edge of illegal commercial activity: that is, supplying China with these cameras might at least partially violate “a sanctions law Congress passed after the Tiananmen Square killings” in 1989.

[Image: Surveillance in China; photographer temporarily unknown, though this appeared in The New York Times several months ago].

All of this also highlights the increasingly intense overlap between film production, the political administration of urban space, and the private security industry, whereby three otherwise unrelated fields become nearly indistinguishable from one another – or, perhaps more accurately phrased, they become erstwhile partners in pursuit of different goals.
In fact, I have often thought it would be interesting – and I have actually written an entire unpublished novel about a very similar idea, set in London (attention, editors! seriously!) – if a well-known, and wealthy, film production firm such as Universal Pictures, or Warner Brothers, or even Film Four, were to sign a legal contract with, for example, the City of London, after which Universal would financially underwrite the installation of a brand new and geographically extensive security camera system.
Universal (or whomever – maybe Bollywood will do this) would retain all legal rights to the footage thus generated – the ultimate reality TV show: London in real-time – yet they’d be contractually obligated to let the City of London use the footage for law enforcement purposes. Beyond a certain timeframe, though, Universal keeps all the film.
Meanwhile, the City has found itself an additional revenue stream and a partner in fighting crime (or, at least, in filming it), and reality TV – reality cinema – has never had it so good. A bottomless well of new footage.
All London needs is a good editor™.
So might that be the urban security model of the future? Cities will lease urban image rights to film production firms? Your willful participation will simply be assumed.
Soon, London, New York, and Tokyo are owned by Sony Pictures; Paris, Rome, and New Delhi sign binding contracts with Warner Brothers; and every other city in between falls to one of half a dozen rival production companies.
Armed film companies replace mayors and town halls as the urban administrators of tomorrow.
Taxes are cut almost to nothing: government revenue is entirely film-generated. You can syndicate the events of yesterday on televisions round the world, and earn tens of millions of euros in the process.
After all, what would you do if you found out that New Line Cinema, or Dreamworks, or Canal+, had just installed tens of thousands of cameras throughout greater Moscow – and that the footage being generated was starting to show up on TV?
We are the stars now®.
Perhaps I should add that I think this is a very dystopian scenario, and I am not at all advocating that it be implemented; nonetheless, the literary and cinematic possibilities are, for me, quite exciting – and, to be frank, it sounds financial workable for both parties.
In any case, if you’re off to Beijing for the Olympics next summer, don’t forget to look your best: you’ll be on film…

(Vaguely related: Filmmaker Adam Rifkin talks to Wired about the cinematic possibilities of CCTV – with belated thanks to Christopher Stack!)

16 thoughts on “All eyes on the city”

  1. This will become a precedent for like installments here in the near future. Thanks China, for being our lab mouse!

  2. Are you familiar with the manifesto for CCTV filmmakers? This seems close to your novel (from the very short description you include). I wrote about it, including several relevant links, at A web of indifferent watching devices.

    Weird how we expect, or even demand, CCTV footage to be of poor quality. In the Wired article you link to, Adam Rifkin explains that they degraded the footage they shot on HD cameras. I was surprised by a comment published more than a year ago, in Cannes director urges CCTV debate (BBC), about the quality of real CCTV footage: “Director of photography Robbie Ryan said he had been surprised by the quality of actual CCTV cameras, which could show action in high quality and were used in the film.”

    br -d

  3. Of course I’ve seen The Truman Show! And it does, in fact, bear similarities to this post, but it’s totally unconnected to the novel – which perhaps deserves a more detailed description here in a future post. Perhaps not.

    Anyway, David, the image quality of CCTV is an interesting topic, actually, as I think at least half of CCTV’s artistic appeal is its perceived lo-fi quality. It’s supposed to be raw, genuine, hard to read, unprocessed, as if it’s some black and white glimpse of the unconscious of the city – but it actually, now, just looks like film shot from a strange angle downtown. Like something by Rodchenko, who used “a new vocabulary of bold and unusual camera positions, severe foreshortenings of perspective, and close-up views of surprising details.”

    So is CCTV the new Suprematism of urban cinema…?

    And my novel is so much better than The Truman Show! Seriously. It’s totally different. It’s got terrorism and a flight to Geneva and two former architecture students and a South African security videographer and a parody of Norman Foster’s office…

  4. Geoff, you have to push the novel it sounds so potential it gives me the chills.

    Of course everyone knows that pervasive surveillance entails pervasive interrogation.

    It would do everyone very well I think to study historical precedents like East Germany under the Stasi to orient themselves with how long such societies can function and draw their citizens into its web of complicities.

    It seems the best way to sell that complicity is to make good use of the already well-greased wheels of governments and the major media corporations.

    We might as well laugh our way to the battery cables and the water-boarding.

    Great friggin’ post!

  5. Roscoe & Matt, Geoff revealed a few other details about his book Film Night. As he didn’t publish the link here himself, you’ll have to find it by yourself!

    br -d

  6. A notable post and story on a few different levels (notice how over the last decade or so in the west every chance item of note–Concorde going down, gunman in the mall, whatever–winds up on footage somehow!) The all-seeing, networked eye is a seamless part of the daily fabric.

    Well, maybe not quite yet. But near enough. Interesting also to check the American firms making the business. But as for China being the guinea mouse here, if you’ve been to lower Manhattan (even pre-9.11) or even better London, you’d see the cameras are already there. Five or six years ago at the Tampa Super Bowl security wanted to use proto face-recognition software to go along with the cameras. The bigger idea here is part of the current info social ecosystem–and don’t know if it can be extracted.

    Commercializing the footage, though–that’s a new wrinkle! Capitalism loves a vacuum. I also think our rivers and natural landmarks should claim naming rights. It’s an untapped revenue stream….*wink*

    …Funny that my USAF dad used to grouse about the cameras on the buildings in East Berlin. This was back in the mid-70s, though, and standards were different.

    (Sigh. Time to pull out a malt and my well-worn copy of ‘Dazed and Confused…’)

    mjdumiak at yahoo

  7. What i always wonder at is, who is going to process this staggering amount of information? I mean who’s going to analyze all that data, and, what’s more, in what time?
    On the other hand, what with all the image processing capabilities today, a picture or even a movie is no longer a valid form of evidence.

  8. I understand that places such as New York and London are heavily watched by various forms of surveillance which help authorities track fugitives and crimes throughout the cities, but does it bother any one else that a communist society such as China is following the trend? I mean most individuals living under a communist regime describe the experience as losing ones’ identity and here China is taking it a step further, theres virtually no where one can go to get some privacy. Who’s to say how far China will take it’s surveillance. It’s scary enough when capitalist societies have this capability, it’s another story when a communist country has the capability to watch every move of every individual.

  9. Although I’ve been a long-time skeptic, I’m starting to believe that China is a testbed for what’s coming to us.

  10. …check london here:

    and as for communist vs. capitalist surveillance, dlo2k6, i’d say watching is watching, right? it’s not about ideology–the motive driving surveillance is always about the idea of “security.”

    also, to say china is a communist state at this point is debatable. not sure exactly what it is, and the organs of power are dressed in red. still, communists? not sure about that. but off-topic, i guess.

    a bien

    mjdumiak at yahoo

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