Ever since the mid-1990’s, digital participants have had the opportunity to allow a window of witness into their personal lives. As the technology of webcams has evolved, we can observe another person’s daily life and behaviors, even from across the world, from our own personal computers, or we can put on a digital performance of our own. The use of webcams, in their various shapes and sizes, offers a bird’s eye view into our lives, which can be positive or negative, depending on the situation. With the design of many webcams, a small apparatus that resembles a one-eyed creature, or a small circle or square embedded into a personal laptop, it can either serve as our own “third eye” for surveillance of someone else, or this “third eye” can benefit another digital viewer, perhaps even the watchful eye of “Big Brother”.
A story leaked recently, this past February, about invasive surveillance data collected starting in 2008 by British intelligence agency GCHQ, Government Communications Headquarters. GCHQ launched a program, “Optic Nerve”, which used webcam photos and footage from Yahoo users, mostly in the UK and the US. The agency discovered data from 1.8 million users, in an effort to collect possible suspects for their own intelligence purposes. As you can imagine, most of what they found was not useful to their investigation. The agency attempted to use facial recognition technology to match up potential suspects for whatever the crime or crimes were with their mugshots. The Guardian calls this technology “eerily reminiscent of the telescreens evoked in George Orwell’s 1984“. However, this plan mostly blew up in GCHQ’s face, as the majority of the people placed under surveillance were found innocent, as well as 3 to 11 percent of the images collected at any point in time turned out to be pornographic, exchanged privately or publicly between Yahoo users. The fact that the facial recognition software picks up any pixels of flesh-tone color made GCHQ’s job all the more difficult, because they had to screen out any sexually explicit images. Many users felt that this surveillance was an extreme violation of their privacy in the first place, especially if two Yahoo users personally exchanged images with nudity without the intention of anyone else ever seeing, especially not a government intelligence agency. This raises obvious questions of legality: how could it possibly be legal that the Optic Nerve program can collect private data anonymously from innocent Yahoo users without their knowledge, and how can it be guaranteed that the circulated nude images were shared by adults of the age of legal consent, without a risk of child pornography charges? GCHQ claims that it was concerned with perfecting the technology of the program first, to test operations like Optic Nerve’s effectiveness, before addressing possible legality issues. Yahoo washed its hands clean of the matter, claiming that it had absolutely no involvement with the process of Optic Nerve. This incident prompted discussion about surveillance of video game consoles such as XBox to gather intelligence data. It has also been in question that Optic Nerve may have had involvement with our own NSA, which has snowballed into a debate on U.S. involvement with foreign intelligence. When will surveillance of some of our most private moments, seen by “Big Brother” through a tiny “third eye”, get too out of control for us to handle?
The very first use of a webcam, ironically, was for surveillance purposes, even though it grew with the development of the Internet and eventually became integrated into the hardware of personal computers, laptops, and even mobile devices. In 1991, Dr. Martyn Johnson and his colleagues in the Computer Science department at the University of Cambridge started a program they called “XCoffee”, in which they set up a live camera and hooked it up to a computer that would stream footage of the department’s coffee pot, ensuring that it was always full and that faculty members from other departments were not stealing the Computer Science department’s coffee. Two years later, Johnson developed a way to upload this type of live stream to the Internet, perfecting the prototype of the webcam. This whole experiment seems like quite a trivial reason for inventing a piece of technology: it was driven by too much laziness to get up from a desk and check the coffee pot, and possessiveness of the Computer Science coffee, which is indicative of a potential caffeine addiction–but that’s another story. This speaks to the main usage of the webcam, a digital window of experience into another person’s daily behaviors; the webcam was not invented for family members to video chat their loved ones fighting overseas or for long-distance relationships to seem easier. It was, interestingly enough, invented as a tool of digital witness, and in recent years has certainly stayed true to its original purpose.
This potential invasiveness of a technology in which users could participate in the private lives of other users grew with the development of websites such as Chatroulette. Developed as an experiment in 2009 by Russian high school student Andrey Ternovskiy, the website allows users to randomly video chat with any other user across the globe. Since not much thought was put into its invention, the site obviously has lent itself to much violation of privacy, obscenity and nudity, and unsafe, predatory behavior. These issues of perversion have made the site infamous, but there have been precautionary measures taken after the inception of the site, such as an age requirement of sixteen and a Safe Mode, in order to avoid pornographic imagery. Whether these privacy changes have helped the “perv problem” or not, the successful and not-so-successful aspects of Chatroulette have given rise to other methods of public videochatting around the world. Napster founding team Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning developed the site “Airtime” in 2012, in hopes of replacing Chatroulette with a more refined version of random video chat. Parker and Fanning’s version applies the use Facebook to more accurately match up two parties to chat, as well as to ensure the user’s true identity (hopefully) by using his or her Facebook profile. Airtime monitors itself for safe content, and has been tested by a handful of celebrities, including Mark Zuckerberg, to experiment with the site’s connectedness with Facebook.
Airtime experienced some technical issues, sure, but these were not the main reason that it did not succeed. One big reason was that it was not a mobile compatible app, which immediately caused it to suffer. The main issue was the concept. Those who used Chatroulette used it mostly for the comfort of anonymity in digital performance and surveillance. They could assume any identity they wished in front of a random user from any country in the world, without being identified by their Facebook profile. This says something about our digital behavior, specifically that we are willing to put on a performance for an audience as long as the camera lens is not pointed at our true identity. Airtime founders attempted to redeem themselves with an app called “OKHello”, available in the App store and for Android devices since April 2013. Although the founders are not admitting this connection between Airtime and OKHello, the similar conceptualization and graphics give it away. OKHello is what Airtime should have been in the first place: a global, random video chat service for mobile devices. This allows users to not only get a bird’s eye view of other users from a home environment, but from a tiny dot in their Smartphone, which may be even more daunting.
Annie Abrahams, in her article “Trapped to Reveal–On Webcam Mediated Communication and Collaboration”, makes reference to Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together, discussing collaborative digital performances via webcams. This study of performance interface differentiates real life from a type of theatrical performance, which participants choose to either produce or observe, but there is often a blurred line between the two. Performance artist Nicolas Frespech describes the purpose and emotion behind this shared stage of digital performance:
“…I would like to be in the place of the spectator. I like to watch them…. I feel desperately alone. I wonder how other people define themselves in this performance, who are they? The body is not present, we are faces, we are not exhibiting ourselves on Chatroulette. We reveal a big spectacle of loneliness… of misunderstanding, poetic situations conditioned or not, failed attempts, frustrated desires … what I call a connected world finally disconnected!…”.
Frespech’s frustrations lead back to the ultimate question of this digital participation: are we alone together, or are we simply together alone?
Not all aspects of webcam-mediated communication are invasive to people’s lives. The webcam has made so many lives more convenient, especially in the realm of business. Executives, especially legal professionals, can hold important business meetings or conference call from the convenience of their desk rather than booking travel arrangements and flying across the world for a business engagement. The travel industry may be hurt from this, but this certainly does not the business world as a whole. The use of webcams can also have an overall positive effect on our personal lives. What if we couldn’t count down to the New Year in New York while Facetiming loved ones in Spain, or Skype with our best friend who is spending the semester in Australia? We should acknowledge the bird’s eye view of a webcam as a window of experience into another’s personal life, rather than just a window of invasion, and we should be thankful to have our “third eye” in the digital universe.