A recent study has shown that the San Francisco crime cameras have no real effect on reducing crime rates.  Should we be surprised? The fixed-in-place cameras have a very limited view and aren’t even monitored due to debatably valid privacy concerns. Plus, hasn’t history shown us that there are very few positive stories when it comes to an watched populace? When it comes to the issue of security cameras, the first that probably springs to mind for most people is Big Brother’s almost omniscient monitoring of their urban populace in George Orwell’s 1984: peace at the cost of privacy. But without a solid infrastructure, long term back-up, and live-monitoring, we lose our privacy and gain no peace in the process.

The most famous and widespread use of surveillance cameras is London’s infamous CCTV system, which has one camera for every fourteen people in the city. While some will argue that they are a necessary deterrent, many fear that a ubiquitous (albeit disconnected) observation system will transform Britain into Orwell’s dystopian Airstrip One. Despite the looming shadow of Big Brother, there are those who creatively subvert the system to their own ends and a few great art projects have sprung from the creative use of the public’s limited access to the video footage. However, the creation of spectacle through surveillance isn’t always so overtly artistic — or intentional.

Here in San Francisco, our own spectacular security came in the form of the erstwhile Tenderloin webcams of Adam’s Block . Adam’s Block was a publicly accessible website showing a live stream of the goings-on at the intersection of Ellis and Taylor.  A nice idea, although one that seemed to be little more than a novelty — a seedy live-streaming reality show more useful for its entertainment value than its security contributions. Except, apparently, to those who have perpetrated or those who plan to perpetrate a crime. For those few individuals, it created enough alarm to threaten the life of the eponymous Adam, who made the mistake of posting his personal information to the popular website. Understandably, he has since removed the camera and its accompanying website in the interests of self preservation. However, our story doesn’t end there. Several of the ever-vigilant neighbors of the ‘loin have followed suit and installed cameras of their own. Now there is even talk of networking these individual cameras, creating the city’s first grassroots security web: citizen surveillance. The idea isn’t dissimilar from the efforts of Meraki, the company behind the Free the Net free wifi network that has quickly swept across the city. Much like with Meraki’s business model, it’s conceivable to think that landlords and building owners would sign up to have a cheap security camera placed on their building. And if the citizens involved in this network were kind enough to donate hard drive space, maybe the footage could be kept on file longer than the 7 days currently employed by the SFPD. Thus, through the collective effort of its residents, neighborhoods could quickly weave together a linked net of security cameras to live monitor the neighborhood and possibly aid police in investigations.

In an age where grassroots campaigning can get an unlikely candidate elected President of the United States and a grassroots city-wide wifi network can succeed where Google, Earthlink, and local government have failed, maybe grassroots security isn’t so radical an idea? Could this ideology catch on? Will the Guardian Angels once again roam the streets of San Francisco is their red-beret’ed glory?  A quick-response network of private neighborhood security linked up with the grassroots, live-monitored citizen web cam could be an incredibly effective–and an incredibly San Franciscan– crime deterrent.

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