January 15, 2006
Austrian Hackers Break Into Surveillance Camera Video Feeds

Austrian hackers broke into police video feeds in Vienna Austria.

A group called Quintessenz used an off-the-shelf satellite receiver to intercept the video signal transmitted by a surveillance camera overlooking a busy square in the capital Vienna. The feed had been crudely scrambled by modifying the analogue video signal but the activists were able to unscramble it using commercial video processing software.

This enabled them to view everything recorded by the camera, and revealed both its capabilities and shortcomings. "The funny thing was, the camera wasn't able to see right below itself," says Christian Moch, a spokesman for Quintessenz, "so people could carry out drug deals underneath it without being seen".

Science fiction writer David Brin has examined the gradual death of privacy due to technological advances in his book The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? and in articles he has on his web site. Brin makes the point that we face two choices: A) Let only government officials watch the camera feeds (and other surveillance feeds) or B) Let everyone watch the camera feeds. These hackers in Austria basically implemented plan B on a small scale.

Suppose everyone could watch all public video cameras over the internet. On the one hand, criminals and even terrorists would be able to figure out shortcomings in the surveillance systems. But on the other hand, a lot more members of the public would be able to watch for criminals in their spare time and many more cameras would have humans watching their feeds in real time. Police can't afford to watch every camera that they have access to. As cameras get cheaper and more ubiquitous the ratio of cameras to police employees watching them will rise higher and higher.

General public access to surveillance cameras would also lead to more rapid reports of camera failures and allow the public to knowledgeably criticize choices for camera positions and choices in camera brands and quality of signals.

So would you prefer only small numbers of people to have the authority to watch surveillance cameras? Or would you prefer a much larger number of people to have access to public camera video feeds?

Update: One other point: Lots of people are going to surveil each other regardless of whether governments provide access to their video cameras. Already spouses and boyfriends and girlfriends put GPS tracking devices on cars to see where their significant other goes to. Does she stop at some apartment complex when she claims she's at a business meeting? Or does he cruise a red light district? You can bet that as nanosensors become more powerful people will be putting audio recorders in clothes buttons and sending their untrusted loved one off on their day with sensors. Then they'll find out whether some hanky panky is going on at the office. Also, business competitors will find ways to spy on each other using coming nanotech sensors.

The point I'm making is that the surveillance society is not just something governments will create. Whether or not governments help us watch each other we will find ways to listen to, watch, and otherwise sense what people around us are doing. Parents will use tiny sensors to surreptitiously find out of their kids are doing drugs or having sex. Employers will use increasingly sophisticated sensors to watch employees. Employees will use sensors to find out what their bosses say behind closed doors. Many sensing technologies will be hard to detect and even if detected will be hard to connect with whoever is using them. Privacy is going to be increasingly hard to protect.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 January 15 10:12 PM  Surveillance Cameras

Bob Mottram said at January 16, 2006 1:51 AM:

I'm not at all bothered about privacy in public spaces, and I expect that when I walk down the street in most towns these days I'm being recorded on camera. Since as a taxpayer I pay for the cameras which are installed I see no reason why I shouldn't have access to their video feeds.

I think a sensible way to do it would be to allow people access to all surveillance cameras within their local neighbourhood. That way if there is a particular crime problem local people can look out for themselves, rather than having to rely upon (and pay) police or security guards to do it.

A lot of this kind of argument is academic anyway, since many people now carry camera phones and other digital imaging devices around with them. If something untoward happens you've only got to take out your phone to get some evidence at the scene (as happened with the London bombings last summer).

Bob Dillon said at January 16, 2006 6:21 AM:

Much of the value of surveillance cameras is the beleif that someone is watching. Allowing public access to the cameras will eliminate this value. What is needed is a system of checks and balances that promotes reliable oversight. A government that cannot keep secrets and have preferential access to information cannot function. This said the potential for abuse is very strong and oversight is neccessary.

The previous response makes the arguement that because tax payers pay for the cameras they should have access to the data. This is a misguided notion that appears all too frequenty in our public discourse. Tax payer money pays for police weapons. I don't beleive that many rational people would support public use of police weapons. The point is that the police have them and few others do. Likewise here.

Bob Badour said at January 16, 2006 7:24 AM:

Bob (Dillon),

You are arguing that having more watchers reduces the threat of having someone watching. Seems absurd to me.

Many people do in fact want the public to carry and if necessary use police weapons. In fact, the founding fathers of the USA enshrined that idea in the right to bear arms.

carl said at January 16, 2006 9:00 AM:

In theory allowing public view of feeds makes sense. But the feeds don't just cover pulic land, do they? For example, I can imagine that my front door could end up in the feed, and criminals could sit watching my front door and 100 others and dispatch a crew to rob my house when they see me leave. Makes their job easier just as it makes the police's job easier in some cases. But the criminal gets to choose the crime, so I could imagine they would be the benefactors not the police. I suppose I could counter this by having an AI that watches my house and gets the police there as soon as someone violates it.

Jake said at January 16, 2006 9:01 AM:

Criminals have taken away our freedom in most urban areas especially our right to privacy. We are under surveillance by criminals on the streets and if we look weak enough, chances are we will be attacked.

Cameras on our streets are a good attempt to gain control of those streets so we can get some of our freedoms back from criminals.

Cameras are just a different form of observation that we used to have on our streets. Cops used to walk beats, and they knew everything about everybody in the neighborhood. Before TV, people used to sit on their front porch and watch people go by and they knew everything about everybody in the neighborhood

We have always lived in a surveillance society until TV came, cameras are bringing back what we always had

Ivan Kirigin said at January 16, 2006 2:18 PM:

The breach of privacy will only occur when someone has a very specific target in mind.

Currently, everything from critical sites (think nuke depots) to your local Macy's has _hundreds_ of cameras. Studies find that trained pros miss the 95% of the action in a scene after only 20 MINUTES!

This means that you're going to have computers do most of the watching in the future. Like GMail, I don't really care if a computer watches me. In public, if someone can see me, I have no problem with being recorded. [if someone makes money off of me, I'd like a cut :)]

I would very much like to have millions of cameras trained on government officials. That transparency would be priceless.

A final note: don't be paranoid about the cameras today or in the near future. Computers today can't do anything significant, and only people with powerful enemies (or a _very_ strong will) could do anything significant. More likely than not, you're being recorded daily. More likely than not, no one is watching.

Note that these comments are coming from someone who is writing software to automate video camera surveillance.

Jake said at January 16, 2006 4:09 PM:


Does the video go to tape or has hard drives taken over.

gmoke said at January 16, 2006 7:31 PM:

In related news:

Thursday, January 12, 2006
AMERICAblog just bought General Wesley Clark's cell phone records for $89.95
by John in DC - 1/12/2006 01:57:00 PM

I reported the other day that your cell phone records are on sale online for anyone to buy, without your permission. Well, this morning AMERICAblog bought former presidential candidate, and former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO (SACEUR), General Wesley Clark's cell phone records for one hundred calls made over three days in November 2005, no questions asked. (Clark's cell phone provider is Omnipoint Communications, which seems to be related to T-Mobile.

See http://americablog.blogspot.com/2006/01/americablog-just-bought-general-wesley.html for further details.

Ivan Kirigin said at January 17, 2006 6:27 PM:


Low compression video like DV-avi takes up plenty of gigs. Currently, tapes are cheaper than hard drives.

A tape copy could be used for archives while the most recent day/week/month is kept in DVRs which use hard drives.

In offline processing, hard drives are more convenient [for the same reason iPods are better than CDs].

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