Jerk has point

A YouTube prankster proves that surveillance is more unsettling when it has legs and can shout at you.

Rob Walker, Yahoo News
Yahoo News

How do you feel about being video-recorded, without permission, while going about your business? Somewhere in Seattle, a man sitting in his parked vehicle had an opportunity to think about that when he noticed someone pointing a camera at him. He quickly became visibly agitated. “Did you know it’s illegal to come up photographing people that don’t want to be photographed?” he said angrily.

“Not in public,” the video-maker coolly replied.

At that, the man promptly abandoned the debate and barreled out of his vehicle, cursing loudly, to chase the video-maker — who calls himself Surveillance Camera Man — down the street.

This scene from the fourth and most recent video Surveillance Camera Man has posted is typical of the series: He basically accosts strangers, mostly in public places, and videotapes them without much explanation, until they flee, come after him, threaten to smash his camera, or some combination thereof. (One actually brandishes a chair.) Think of it as a reversal of Candid Camera — this is about seeing what happens when an explicit camera intrudes on quotidian life. It’s hard not to laugh at the results — and impossible not to cringe. Security Camera Man is obviously a troll, a jerk, a jackass. I dearly hope I am never among his victims.

That said, I hate to admit it, but I increasingly think that while he may be a jerk, he’s a jerk making a worthwhile point. While uncool, what he’s doing appears to be legal, according to Internet Monitor, a blog associated with Harvard’s Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, which suggests that “perhaps Surveillance Camera Man is inciting a much-needed conversation by forcing people to face the uncomfortable feeling they’re being recorded.”

In other words, all Surveillance Camera Man is doing is making manifest and unavoidable something that’s already happening to pretty much all of us: Being videotaped, while going about our business, without permission.

Surely that’s even truer now than it was just a year ago. Surveillance cameras continue to become more pervasive in public spaces, owned by the government and businesses alike. Plenty of commentators after the Boston Marathon bombings endorsed even more such cameras; New York’s police chief concluded that “I think the privacy issue has really been taken off the table.”

Has it? Obviously there’s another party involved in the constant video recording of public space: us! Smartphones are surely pervasive than security cameras already; products like Google Glass and Memoto will add to the people’s documentation arsenal.

What Surveillance Camera Man might really think about all this is unclear. Ironically enough, he’s remained anonymous, and so far as I can tell has given just one interview, in 2012, which didn’t really address his motives. (He has not yet responded to a message I sent him through YouTube.) Sometimes his interactions with subjects suggested a point of view. “You ever go to the grocery store?” he asked one young man in an earlier video. “You know how there’s surveillance cameras everywhere? It’s not a big deal.” In another he suggested that a woman angry about being taped from the sidewalk is in fact sitting in a lobby with a security camera. But most of the encounters seemed like for-the-lulz provocations, and when the videos stopped appearing late last year, the stunt seemed to have run its course.

Which is why it’s intriguing that it has now returned; as others have noted, the videos now end with a kind of logo, suggesting some more considered intent. In the 2012 videos, he would tell his flabbergasted or enraged subjects that he was “just making a video.” In the latest installment, from a few weeks ago, he offers a slightly different explanation: “I’m just doing some surveillance.”

Perhaps this suggests a response to more recent developments — and more of an agenda. “You’re not doing anything wrong are you?” Security Camera Man asks one of his more recent, livid victims. “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about.” We’ve heard similar arguments before, but they sure sound different when aimed at a specific individual asking for nothing more than to be left alone. That’s why — while I kind of wish he would just stop — I think Security Camera Man is asking a valid question: If we freak out when we can seewho is recording us, shouldn’t we be more interested in the increasingly routine scenarios when we can’t?

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