The Spy Who Blogged Me

How we learned to stop worrying and love surveillance
Online only: Read more of Hal Niedzvicki’s thoughts about surveillance and society at his blog, peephal.com/blog, and read Walrus blogger Chantelle Oliver on living her life as an Internet peepshow.
It’s another busy afternoon at SpyTech. A young man discreetly inspects cameras hidden in teddy bears and clock radios. A chatty fellow wants to see miniature voice recorders, even though, as he loudly proclaims, he’s not planning on buying anything. A woman comes in with an elaborate rented apparatus that needs repairs; her dog chewed through a wire, putting an abrupt end to a student art project involving cameras affixed to pets. Finally, Ursula Lebana, the owner of this midtown Toronto business, manages to break away from a customer on the phone who wants to buy a cellphone signal jammer. They are illegal in Canada, she tells him.

I ask Lebana how things have changed since she opened Canada’s first spy store back in 1991. “People who came into the store at that time were quite shocked,” she tells me. “They never realized cameras were that small. They said, ‘Oh my God, that’s scary. And isn’t it terrible to monitor the nanny? Where’s the trust?’” Sixteen years later, business is booming. “Now people say, ‘Oh, I want a hidden camera,’” says Lebana, who has since opened SpyTech locations in Ottawa and London, Ontario. “They are more willing to use them now. They’re more familiar with it. I’m even getting repeat customers: a girl came in, and she had her first baby, so now she’s monitoring the nanny like her father did sixteen years ago, which is nice.”

Cozy stories of intergenerational nanny monitoring aside, there are lots of ways to characterize the ongoing revolution in surveillance technologies and attitudes, and “nice” isn’t one of them. But on second thought, maybe Lebana is on to something. In the almost two decades SpyTech has been selling miniature cameras, micro-recorders, semen detection kits, and computer monitoring packages, we’ve gone from fearing Big Brother to wanting to be him. Where’s the trust? There isn’t any. But don’t worry. There’s a new world of ubiquitous, self-directed surveillance to make sure we all play nice.

When George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four in the late 1940s, the possibility of a future totalitarian state would have seemed very real. The Nazis might have come up with something like an all-knowing, all-watching Big Brother had they prevailed in their quest for world domination and Aryan purity. Or if not the Nazis, then maybe Stalin’s USSR, with its micromanaged citizens told what to eat, watch, and think. Orwell wrote at a time when informants, wiretaps, and secret agents bugging apartments were seen as the difference between us and them.

But Hitler was defeated, and the Berlin Wall crumbled. The spectre of an evil government using surveillance to control every aspect of its citizens’ lives receded. Today the new enemy is “terrorism.” Surveillance, no longer a symbol of totalitarianism, is seen as a helpful tool in our never-ending “war” against an amorphous enemy who can appear anywhere, anytime. So it is that almost every day, surveillance cameras spring up in trouble spots and bad neighbourhoods, with very little protest. They are ubiquitous. We’ve stopped noticing them. From activists, academics, and government watchdogs, we get a steady stream of alarming reports, books, and speeches, but few of them are asking the right question: if surveillance is everywhere, if 2008 feels so much like Nineteen Eighty-Four, why doesn’t anyone care?

An abc News/Washington Post poll conducted in July 2007 found that 71 percent of Americans favour increased video surveillance. Good thing, because in the United States there are an estimated 30 million publicly and privately operated surveillance cameras creating 4 billion hours of video a week.

The UK leads the Western world in police use of closed-circuit television (cctv) cameras. Estimates suggest that there are more than 4 million cctv cameras nationwide watching town squares, highways, and busy shopping malls. Far from being anti-surveillance agitators, British citizens are by and large sanguine about cctvs. In fact, there’s even a Home Office initiative called the Safe Cities Program that has doled out hundreds of millions of pounds in grants to cities for cctv anti-crime projects.

Canada’s numbers are harder to pin down. As Ontario’s SpyTech suggests, the private surveillance business is thriving; more and more homes, daycare centres, schools, stores, businesses, and apartment buildings are monitoring their premises and properties. Initiatives like Bell Canada’s recently discontinued Home Monitoring service demonstrate the steady mainstreaming of surveillance. For a monthly fee, subscribers could fuse Bell’s Sympatico Internet service with customized warnings on mobile devices, such as a text message to your cellphone informing you that your elderly parent failed to activate a motion sensor. Finally, though nowhere near UK and US numbers, police surveillance cameras are in use in at least fourteen Canadian cities.

A look at cctv in Toronto is a peek into the probable future of surveillance in urban Canada. This past winter, the police held a community meeting to discuss installing cameras at the troubled intersection of Bathurst and Queen. Meanwhile, up to 10,000 cameras will be installed and activated this summer in Toronto’s subway cars, streetcars, and buses. When the Toronto Transit Commission revealed its surveillance plans, citizens shrugged and went about their business. It took Privacy International, based in London, England, to register a complaint. A cbc Radio producer who attempted to do a piece on the police surveillance cameras installed in Toronto’s club district told me he gave up on the project partly because all the bright-eyed young people he interviewed under the giant domed cameras were universally positive about the watchful presence of authority.

Stéphane Leman-Langlois, a University of Montreal criminologist and a member of the Surveillance Camera Awareness Network, conducted focus groups in a crime-ridden downtown Montreal neighbourhood where police cctv cameras had been installed. Residents were asked to discuss their feelings about safety, security, and the cctv cameras. Langlois discovered that the cameras simply weren’t a concern. Issues like privacy and state totalitarianism were never raised. “The only conclusion about the perception of surveillance,” Leman-Langlois tells me, “is that they don’t perceive it. They don’t see it as surveillance at all.”

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6 comment(s)

David LeeApril 11, 2008 21:44 EST

Hello Mr. Niedzviecki. I read your interesting piece in the Walrus and noticed a line near the end where where you say someone at SpyTech said "Pretty cool, huh?" Since you say that Spy Tech is an Ontario outfit I was surprised your friend didn't say "Pretty cool, eh?" Recently, I have been noticing what seems to be a new trend in Canada of replacing the traditional "eh?" with the American "huh." I would like to know if you, as a writer and observer of Canadian life, have noticed this too. Could it be that young, urban Canadians have decided that "eh?" is hick and "huh?" is hip?

AnonymousApril 12, 2008 07:38 EST

Whatevs, we still say eh eh?

Richard SmithApril 14, 2008 06:17 EST

I have to agree with the SCP: surveillance is debated in Canada, and vigorously. The Kelowna RCMP's plan was subject to intense scrutiny by the Privacy Commissioner, the Vancouver Police proposals for cameras in the downtown eastside has been rejected at least twice (most recently based on an excellent internal report that revealed that research shows it just doesn't work the way it is purported to).

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