Big Brother has arrived

Jeff Weber [sic] has found a good way of getting rid of the crack dealers from the street he lives on, which is near Market Street in San Francisco. Instead of calling the police, he displays the dealers of Stevenson Alley for the whole world to see. On 16 July [2001], the 37-year-old messenger installed a cheap webcam in the window of his room in the Seneca Hotel, which has been his modest home for the last six years. Gunshots, knife fights, dealers with furtive gestures and drug-using bums lighting their pipes: street scenes such as these appear in "real time" on his free web site.

"I want to shame the Mayor and the San Francisco Police, and get them to clean up the neighborhood," explains well-named Jeff Webb, during a conversation that was interrupted several times by the sound of police sirens. When the residents of the neighborhood called the police to complain about the dealers, he affirms, the police said that they were overwhelmed and that, by the time they arrived on the scene, the criminals would have already left. "With the webcam, the police can't say they didn't see anything," Webb says.

This bizarre initiative comes at a time when the video surveillance of public places by the authorities is beginning to alarm the American public. When private cameras are utilized on a public street, "they are always widely known about," reports Jeff Fryrear, director of the National Crime Prevention Institute in Louisville, Kentucky. The personal cameras, which exist in uncounted numbers, are often installed in residential neighborhoods in partnership with law enforcement.

The schools, too. In San Francisco, the provocative webcam receives a lot of praise: following an article about him in The San Francisco Examiner, Jeff Webb says he received dozens of encouraging e-mails. "It's brilliant," says one of these messages. "I have also had enough of the homeless problem in San Francisco, but I've never found a way of attacking the subject in a active fashion." Other residents and a school have said that they will install webcams of their own to surveill their respective neighborhoods. "I have recently seen a dealer point the camera out and ask his clients to go several streets down," Jeff Webb affirms.

Allergic to video surveiilance in all of its forms, the anarcho-situationist collective Surveillance Camera Players (SCP) have many reasons for protesting directly in front of webcams. If a number of citizens have already filmed crime scenes taking place right in front of their eyes (the beating of Rodney King in 1991 is the most famous example), Jeff Webb's gadget raises several new questions. "In principle, a webcam pointing at the street threatens the privacy of those who walk by it," says Dave, also known as "Redmist," the founder of the SCP [sic] and its representative [sic] in San Francisco. "But, in practice, I don't see how, because Mr. Webb has tried to publicize the fact that his webcam is pointing at the street. On the other hand, if it wasn't known to the public, it would constitute a threat to privacy. People wouldn't know that they were being observed."

Legal blurriness. In the legal point of view, blurriness reigns. According to the Privacy Foundation in Washington, American laws concerning the audio recording of private conversations are relatively clear, but those concerning video recording of public places, webcams or not, are quasi-nonexistent. For Redmist, it would be more ethical and effective if one "took photographs of crimes as they were being committed, rather than filming the entire street all the time."

The San Francisco Police have their own doubts about the effectiveness of the web cam of Stevenson Alley. Officer Anna Morales told The San Francisco Examiner that the camera can't distinguish details. Faces, in particular. Where Jeff Webb sees a man who is crying and searching the sidewalk for crumbs of crack, a novice might see a shaking silhouette. The same can be said for his collection of Best Images. "The people who smoke crack hold the pipe the pipe in a certain fashion that is immediately recognizable," Webb maintains.

The idea of webcams all over the United States bothers Bill Brown, co-founder of the Surveillance Camera Players. "When webcams use face recognition software, they will capture faces very clearly," says the guerilla of anti-videosurveillance. For him, clandestine webcams display crime as if it were an entertainment, to the detriment of the criminals and their victims. They banalise the use of surveillance cameras and incite voyeurism.

[Written in French by Emmanuelle Richard and published in the 25-26 August 2001 issue of Liberation. Translated into English by Bill Brown. Note that it appears that Jeff Webb's motives have been misunderstood.]

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