The LRB points out a new program in the UK, leading up to the Olympics, that is using an app to report on suspected criminals:
Today, as the web is being undermined by the rapid dominance of apps for smartphones and tablets, the Iranian police would probably, as the jargon has it, ‘go multiplatform’. That, at any rate, is what their colleagues in the Metropolitan Police have just done: unveiling, ahead of the Olympics, a new app called Facewatch ID.
You enter your postcode, and are shown CCTV images of people committing minor crimes in your area. If you recognise anyone, you can let the police know straightaway using the app. The idea is that, if popular, the app will work as a deterrent while also allowing the general public to share in the burdens – and joys – of policing.
The police – or the people who provide them with the technology – may be hoping for other, less obvious benefits from the new system, which could help prepare the ground for fully automated facial recognition systems.
During the early goings of the hockey riots in Vancouver, last year, the RCMP asked people to tag anyone they knew in the widely circulating pictures, using as much meta-data as possible.
In some of my previous work, I traced the use of sporting events as staging grounds for new media technologies. This includes things like television, and serial photography, and a slew of video technologies. Often, these events serve the dual purpose of testing a new technology for military/police use and as an introduction to a wider, public audience. This was the case for CCTV and facial recognition technology. The LRB takes a suitably disapproving tone when talking about this latest tool, but it’s nothing new. In addition to working as a staging ground for new technology, large, public events are also used to recode and re-instill habitual civic behaviours.
In Peter Fritzsche’s fantastic book, Reading Berlin 1900, he describes a game that the Berlin police set up with the readers of the newspaper Morgenpost. The game was called “Augen Auf!”:
On 13 November 1919, the Morgenpost produced a city-wide event that was meant to revive a sense of metropolitan responsibility which had supposedly disappeared since the war. According to Berlin police officials, citizens had grown disinclined to report criminal activity or to help authorities identify suspects at large. As a step toward retraining people to be reliable witnesses and aid the police, the Morgenpost offered 2, 000 Marks to the sharp-eyed individual who called out “Augen auf!” (Eyes Open!) uopon spotting its street-roaming reporter Egon Jameson, whose face peered from hundreds of Litfasssäulen (advertising pillars).
This interactive event married daily media use with a desired social corrective at a formal, civic level. In other words play-vigilance was meant to reinvigorate a sense of responsibility in practicing legal vigilance. Today, someone might call this “gamification” (but please don’t). As in Berlin, as in Vancouver, the Facewatch ID program is as much – and probably more – about forming new practices of co-surveillance that fit with new techniques of media use as it is about actually solving crimes.
- Peter Fritzsche, Reading Berlin 1900. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 83. ↩