Ten years ago this month, I edited a cover story for MIT’s Technology Review magazine called “Surveillance Nation.” Written by veteran science journalist Charles Mann and network security guru Dan Farmer, the story looked at the state of digital video circa 2003 and envisaged a near future where every home, business, and street would be subject to constant video monitoring. Far from feeling victimized or invaded, Mann and Farmer predicted, consumers would actually ask for this technology. They wrote:
Widespread electronic scrutiny is usually denounced as a creature of political tyranny or corporate greed. But the rise of omnipresent surveillance will be driven as much by ordinary citizens’ understandable—even laudatory—desires for security, control, and comfort as by the imperatives of business and government. “Nanny cams,” global-positioning locators, police and home-security networks, traffic jam monitors, medical-device radio-frequency tags, small-business webcams: the list of monitoring devices already deployed by and for average Americans is already long, and it will only become longer. Extensive surveillance, in short, is coming into being because people like and want it.
A decade on, it’s clear that Mann and Farmer could not have been more right. With nary a backward glance, Americans have bought hundreds of thousands of Internet-connected video cameras and aimed them at checkout counters, baby cradles, living-room couches, and pet kennels across the land. Add to all these stationary cameras our camera phones, dash cams, and sports cams, and there’s hardly a holdup, traffic accident, tremor, or meteor strike that goes unrecorded.
To George Orwell, or even to the average member of pre-9/11 society, this would have been a startling development. But the amount of public hand-wringing heard today over the arrival of ubiquitous surveillance is roughly zero. A few bloggers think Google Glasses are creepy, but a far more common complaint is that they’re deeply unfashionable. The American Civil Liberties Union worries about warrantless wiretapping, but video surveillance isn’t one of the “key issues” listed on its website.
How did this happen? When did we stop worrying and learn to love our surveillance cameras? I’d argue that you can attribute much of the shift to the way a few next-generation security-camera companies have positioned their products—and to a few key technology decisions at these companies that have reduced the risk of privacy disasters.
To find out how one startup has navigated these potentially hazardous shoals, I visited this week with Greg Duffy, the co-founder and CEO of Dropcam. The San Francisco-based company makes a $149 gadget called the Dropcam HD, which connects to your home Wi-Fi network and sends a continuous, high-definition video signal to Dropcam’s cloud servers. You can connect to the servers from any Web browser, iPhone, iPad, or Android device and watch the video in near real time—there’s a delay of a second or two. You can also listen in on the action via the camera’s microphone, and send voice messages back to the camera’s built-in speaker via a push-to-talk feature.
For an extra $10 per month or $100 per year, the company also provides a “cloud DVR” service that stores video for 7 days and lets you save and share the most interesting or important clips, which are automatically highlighted based on movement in the scene. (Think burglars, or perhaps bored pets who’ve decided to shred your important papers while you’re away.)
All in all, it’s the same sort of Internet Protocol-based security video technology that’s been used for years in retail locations, garages, and other public spots. But the video is captured at a higher resolution and a drastically lower price point, and without the hassle of having to store the data on local servers.
The four leading uses for the Dropcam HD, according to Duffy, are home security, child monitoring, pet monitoring, and small-business security. Of course, there are a number of wackier edge cases. More than 100,000 viewers logged on to see video from one boat owner’s Dropcam during Superstorm Sandy. Firefighters have attached the devices to their helmets to help fire chiefs see what’s going on inside burning buildings. One pet-store owner attached a Dropcam to the back of a tortoise, just for fun. In my own case, I used a loaner Dropcam this week to verify that—as I had feared—my dog barks a lot when I’m not home.
Most users leave their Dropcams running all the time, even when they’re home, which means they catch everything people say and do. And I mean everything: in one Dropcam video I saw, a homeowner is absentmindedly scratching his behind just moments before the family cat goes crazy (which turns out to be the cue for an earthquake).
Duffy says he and co-founder Aamir Virani have been thinking and talking about the potential privacy implications of full-time home video monitoring ever since they started the company four years ago. “If you ignore the social issues surrounding the products you create, you are asking for society to use them in a way that you didn’t expect and maybe didn’t want,” Duffy says. He says there are three major protections in place to prevent video from being misused or improperly accessed.
The first is that Dropcam’s site, apps, and cloud DVR are password-protected and private by default. Think of it as the opposite of Facebook or live Web broadcasting services like Justin.tv. “We don’t put the sharing options in your face or make sharing options part of the setup process,” Duffy says. “If you want to share that camera with people in your home, like your spouse, you can do that. If you don’t want to share it with the world, you don’t have to. The crux of this is we are putting the responsibility for what should be recorded and when in the hands of each individual user.”
Secondly, all video from Dropcam devices is encrypted before it reaches Dropcam’s servers, using bank-level security that even the nation’s top spymasters would have a hard time breaking, according to Duffy. That means Dropcam couldn’t comply with a subpoena or a National Security Letter even if it wanted to. “The fact that we store the video in our cloud doesn’t mean we have any right to it, and it doesn’t mean we have any power to hand it out to law enforcement,” Duffy says.
The third protection is a bit more abstract, but perhaps even more reassuring: it’s the fact that Dropcam has a simple business model, built around selling cameras and cloud storage directly to consumers. The company has no incentive to use the data for anything else. “Facebook is also cataloguing your life, but you don’t pay them to do that, so their incentives are quite different,” Duffy says. “They want to use your data to sell things. With Dropcam, you have ultimate control.”
|Wi-Fi Video Monitoring Options for the Home|
|$149 per camera, $9.95 per month for 7-day cloud storage|
|$199.99 per camera, free 7-day storage of “motion clips”|
|$299.99 per camera, Dropbox cloud storage optional|
|$199.99 for 1-camera system, $49.95 per year for 250 MB cloud storage|
|$129.95 per camera, free online storage for up to 25 events per day|
What really scared my colleagues Charles Mann and Dan Farmer back in 2003 wasn’t the spread of video cameras, but the fact that it was getting easier to store and analyze the data they capture. “The computer networks on which monitoring data are stored and manipulated continue to grow faster, cheaper, smarter, and able to store information in greater volume for longer times,” they warned. Myriad small-scale video networks might eventually feed up into large databases accessible to law enforcement agencies or corporations, they worried—and there would be little way for those being surveilled to correct bad data or prevent misinterpretations.
One way to minimize the misuse of surveillance databases, Farmer and Mann suggested, would be to compartmentalize and encrypt the data, so that only authorized users could access it, and only for certain purposes. Writing in the immediate wake of 9/11, however, they saw little chance that such protections would actually be implemented.
But they may have been too pessimistic. Only by imposing such strict controls, arguably, have companies like Dropcam managed to avoid Facebook-style privacy fiascoes while clearing the way for the emergence of a big home video monitoring market. A really big market: Duffy says Dropcam already collects more video data every day than YouTube, and it’s just one of a half-dozen companies selling Wi-Fi video monitoring cameras (see table). Revenue from device sales and subscriptions will probably save the startup from needing venture capital beyond the $18 million it’s already raised, Duffy says.
Given that a username and password are all that’s needed to access your account, a privacy breach involving Dropcam or one of the competing video monitoring companies is entirely conceivable—perhaps inevitable. But maybe such things will matter less and less in the future. Duffy tells a story about Dropcam’s vice president of marketing, whose young son “gets upset if the Dropcam isn’t on. He feels like mommy can see him and talk to him through the Dropcam when she’s away.” Kids who grow up on cam, in other words, may have a totally different set of expectations about privacy, or what it means to be alone.
In addition, once people internalize the knowledge that they’re on camera much of the time, they may simply stop doing or saying things that would be embarrassing or incriminating. You could call this the Eric Schmidt Effect: as the Google chairman said in 2009, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
In a world that honest, we wouldn’t need Wi-Fi video cameras to secure our homes against burglars, but merely to help us keep an eye on things. Duffy tells another story about an apartment owner who watched his dog turn on the oven and start a fire. The man immediately called a neighbor, who went over to extinguish the blaze. “It’s amazing what happens in your home when you’re away,” Duffy says.
Indeed—I guess I should be happy that my dog merely barks.
[Update, 4/23/13: See our companion Xconomy article about Duffy’s views on Silicon Valley startup culture and the best strategies for keeping employees happy.]
Here’s a 30-second introductory video from Dropcam.