In the world of internet services and applications, nothing is ever truly free.
If you buy a game for your cellphone, you may have two options: a free version that contains advertisements, and a paid version that does not contain advertisements. Data-farming is highly lucrative, and identity theft is prevalent in a world where most people balk at two-factor authentication, where people complain about privacy settings on Facebook while thinking nothing of logging into sketchy third-party apps to play ridiculous games and surveys, and where many people still consider “abc123” a viable password.
If you aren’t paying for services with money, then you are paying for services with your data.
Which brings us to the lovely city of Ypsilanti, Michigan. If you decide to walk throughout the downtown and Depot Town areas, you will find some great bars, stores, and restaurants, as well as Riverside Park which is next to the Huron River. You will also find video cameras trained on these locations:
-The intersection of W. Michigan Ave and S. Washington St.
-The intersection of N. River and Cross St.
-The parking lots for N. Huron, S. Huron, and N. Adams
Now…the man who is responsible for these video cameras is Steve Pierce. He is a local businessman who has been involved in local political elections. He is also the person responsible for the Wireless Ypsi initiative, which provides the immediate downtown area with free wireless internet access.
The issue that people are starting to have, is that Pierce has refused to sign an agreement with the Ypsilanti Downtown Development Authority, which states that he will not sell the images that he receives while using these cameras.
For his part, Pierce thinks that what he is doing is completely legal, and that what he is doing is no different than videotaping animals at zoos, or videotaping the geyser Old Faithful.
And, for my part, I think that videotaping actual human beings is a hell of a lot different than videotaping a monkey or an attraction at a national park. Yes, these videos are available for the public to watch (I’ll provide a link to the website at the end of this article), but why would Pierce want to videotape city parking lots and intersections?
I can only speculate, but whether he is simply a voyeur, whether he is gathering metrics, data, and images to sell to other businesses or to use for his own business purposes; or whether he is a calculating politician hoping to catch a particular person stumbling out of a bar into a parking lot, there really are no valid reasons for a private citizen to administrate the videotaping of large public areas in a city, with no oversight. This is probably more of a case of Creepy Uncle rather than Big Brother, but there are still many questionable things about this.
The only valid reason to have cameras in public places are for security reasons, and even then there need to be limits imposed on the amount of data collected and the time allotted to store the data. The video cameras in the West Willow neighborhood is a good example, which has helped somewhat to reduce and deter crime in a traditionally high-crime area, and which was approved by the residents themselves, in collaboration with the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department.
It’s really unfortunate that Moore’s Law (which is starting to plateau) is still more accurate and relevant than the laws governing usage of the internet, and internet enabled products. This has ignited a good debate in the community, however, and the Ypsilanti DDA will continue to debate the legality of these video cameras at their next meeting in April.
The video cameras in Ypsilanti, offering real-time feeds available to the public, can be seen at http://cams.ypsi.com/ .