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Is it surveillance or is it an escape route?

November 23rd, 2004 · 3 Comments

On Saturday I heard This American Life’s program Spies Like Us including one story of a mom who used her baby monitor to hear cell phone conversations of her neighbors. Secrets for the taking from the everyday world of surveillance, to quote phrases from the show’s description.

At BloggerCon, I immediately noticed how easy it is to make digital and video recordings. Many of the attendees sitting near me were making bootlegs of the sessions, web camera clipped to the laptop, iPod with recorder lying on the desk. I’ve seen some video clips posted and I’m surprised I haven’t seen more. Cameras and microphones are becoming commonplace.

I’m not a supporter of surveillance. I don’t like being recorded. And I don’t think it’s right to spy on neighbors. When I walk around the block with my baby monitor, I turn it off if I happen to hear someone else’s conversations.

But when reading a recent news story, I began to wonder whether this everyday world of surveillance and the new availability of recording technology could be a precious tool for others to find freedom, a way to escape dangerous relationships.

Last week I read an article in the Seattle Times referring to the case of Laura Rogers who shot her husband. I can’t get the Times link in the archives, but here is a Washington Post piece: Arundel Judge Frees Woman In Death of ‘Horrible’ Man:

Laura Rogers killed her husband in April, shooting him as he slept and claiming it was a suicide. But when she pleaded guilty to manslaughter yesterday, 198 days after her arrest, an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge set her free.

Her husband, Walter Rogers, 43, had raped and impregnated her teenage daughter, a child from a previous marriage, both sides said in court. And the day before Laura Rogers leveled a shotgun at her husband’s head, she watched a videotape he had made of the sex acts.

In this case, it was a video that helped bring an end to the abuse. The stepfather had recorded his acts and created his own evidence. But what if the child or her mother had been able to make a video to prove the abuse they were each receiving?

Laura Rogers had thought that a boy at school was the father of her daughter’s baby. The girl had told her mother that she was being abused, but it seems that she was convicted of making false claims and wasn’t believed. After the baby was born, DNA tests proved paternity.

Abusers often have Jekyll- and-Hyde personalities, vacillating between sweet and viscious. But only the victims see the cruel side. Others have a hard time believing the abuser could do wrong.

Children especially can be caught in a credibility bind. They are easily enticed. Easily intimidated. Their claims can be dismissed while the situation escalates in danger.

I speak from what I know. What I’ve read. What I’ve heard from others lives. And what little I’ve experienced in my own.

What if children and others in abusive relationships could utilize technology to find freedom? What if victims could make their own videotapes or recordings to prove their oppression? What if Laura Rogers’ daughter had been able to back up her words with pictures and provide her own evidence months ago?

So often it seem technology is marketed as a way to spy on others. I have seen too many pop-up ads for tiny web cameras with pictures of shapely women, the implication obvious. It is as if technology is a tool for the powerful to exploit others.

But why couldn’t the same camera be used to give power to the victims? What if those who have been hurt and battered could use these devices, their own secret surveillance, to speak through their silence and prove the existence of a Hyde hiding in their home.

There are obstacles to this idea that I can see. One is the psychological damage done to victims, so that they believe they deserve the abuse. Many times those who are battered are not able or willing to fight. Emotion and relationship make strong bonds.

And there are the logistics of victims acquiring technology. How would a young girl get a small video camera, or know how to use it? How could people find or afford what they need for their secret surveillance?

I don’t have answers. But I have many questions. Especially after reading the story of Laura Rogers. I wonder what could have been done sooner to help the situation in the family, where both mother and daughter were being abused. If a videotape made by a perpetrator can have power, imagine what a victim’s secret surveillance could do.

Tags: news

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 lucy // Nov 23, 2004 at 6:41 am

    I remember a story in the news from several months ago about a 15yr old(?) boy that a molestor tried to snatch. The boy got away AND managed to use his cell phone to take a picture of the man/car! The pedophile was caught soon there-after, thanks to the camera info.

    At first, I thought “Wow! That boy was REALLY together to do that!” Then I started thinking. I bet the boy (who hadn’t had the cell-phone that long) had been taking pictures of everything. Taking that picture was probably reflex as much as anything.

    I suspect we’ll be seeing more and more people caught by victims using technology, if nothing else because many victims are younger than the perpetrators. The young in general have a tremendous advantage in assimilating new technology.

  • 2 Dan Lyke // Nov 23, 2004 at 7:47 am

    Yeah, despite having attitudes about government surveillance that often earn me the label “privacy freak”, I’m a big fan of more ways to do personal recording.

    I think it won’t be too long before camera phones or their offspring (think: small enough to fit in glasses…) make street crime obsolete: If every potential mugger knows that there’s a good chance that their image will be transmitted off of the victim almost immediately, in a format that’s a lot clearer than a convenience store video tape, that’s one big deterrent.

    Likewise, here in San Francisco we’re seeing fallout from those big anit-Iraq invasion demonstrations where private video cameras have drawn some pretty clear lines, both pro and con, over police and demonstrator behavior.

    I think also that deliberately blurring the line between public and private further will, if we’re strong about it, help us change the culture for the healthier, because there’s a lot of behavior that we will no longer be able to categorize as “weird”, or remain “closeted” about.

  • 3 Julie // Nov 23, 2004 at 11:07 pm

    Thank you Lucy and Dan for your thoughtful comments. Lots of interesting things to consider. I think you both are right that more victims will be using technology and more behaviors will be exposed and opened to the culture. Obviously these principles can also be true on an international level, as oppressed peoples can begin to record and reveal their experiences. Then again, we are also entering an era where it will be possible to falsify digital documentation, edit and doctor it, etc. Interesting and intriguing times for technology and humanity…thanks!

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