A panopticon-based prison

Above: Interior view of cell house, new Illinois State Penitentiary (early-twentieth-century). Credit: Public domain.

Getting Familiar with Active CCTV

Since their rise to prominence as a format of human control ("security") in the public space, CCTV surveillance systems have been presumed to function as per the panopticon control architecture (i.e., prison) innovated by Jeremy Bentham in the eighteenth century. (ODE: "a circular prison with cells arranged around a central well.") Under the panopticon structure, guards in a control-room-cum-watchtower overlook prisoner cells built in a surrounding circle. Any prisoner may be scrutinized at any moment. The psychological effect on the prisoner, is to, soon-enough, cause them to just presume that they are always being watched--since it is not possible to determine a moment in which he or she--the criminal--is not being watched.

The image of the CCTV control-room with guards watching a bank of monitor screens has become entrenched as what-is-happening at the receiving end of any CCTV video-camera-system.

With the emergence of active facial-recognition software, this presumption is becoming rather twee and quaint. The sophisticated CCTV system of today is fully active and computer-centric rather than human-centric. An active CCTV-based system monitoring, say, a major museum, or art gallery, may be set up to create a scan-and-store database of each person entering the institution--these images can (and will) then be matched-up with facial scans of each person leaving the building, in order to create a dynamic real-time inventory of all those inside at any moment.

Given the emergence of active CCTV-based technologies, the classic CCTV warnings that one sees around are becoming rather disingenuous since they rely on the entrenched idea of the passive CCTV control system (the guard in a room watching a bank of monitors). Such warnings do not make clear--or even allude to--the fact that, in modern settings, the person who has agreed to be recorded by CCTV is actually agreeing to much more that simply being "filmed."

(18 April 2018)

Acknowledgment: this article has been informed by a recent presentation given by Fortecho (fortecho.com).