The New Surveillance, The New Blacklist

I have been concerned about video surveillance for a long time. Its slow creep into every corner of our lives continues – every so often, another restaurant, another bar, another corner store adds surveillance cameras to its premises. I especially dislike them in meeting places like restaurants and bars, but for me, clubs are the worst.

I like to dance, but it’s difficult for me because I’ll get self-conscious. Having surveillance cameras all over a club makes it damn near impossible unless I get really drunk – hardly an intended consequence, I would imagine.

When picking a venue for my wedding reception, one thing I looked for was an absence of surveillance cameras. I was glad to find an awesome, sizable venue that didn’t have any cameras. I was able to relax, have fun, and dance my ass off. It was a great night. A recent proposal to the San Francisco Entertainment Commission endangers this. It would make video surveillance and ID scanning mandatory for many events, which means that many venues would be forced to install surveillance equipment. Given its size, no doubt my wedding venue would be one of them. Just one year later, that simple, empowering experience I had might not be possible any longer – at least not in San Francisco, in a venue that size.

This proposal highlights a new trend in video surveillance: real-time identification of the surveilled (that’s us). Right now, there’s a shift in a lot of clubs from just checking IDs to make sure people are old enough, to scanning in the IDs. That’s a major change in practice. It means the venue knows exactly who we are, with quite a lot of personal detail – address, photograph, exact birthdate, height, weight, etc. In the US, there are very little restrictions on personal data like this – so it could easily be sold to marketers.

Even without the ID scanners, facial recognition technology is improving to the point where soon the computers behind the cameras will have the ability to instantly identify you. No doubt the free market will gladly provide national and global face databases (perhaps culled from Facebook) to give venue owners and governments the ability to know exactly who you are the moment you walk in range of one of their cameras.

“It’s a little Big Brother-ish”

I was at 111 Minna recently – where, I could have sworn, they didn’t have surveillance cameras the last time I was there, a few months ago – and they have several there now, covering the entrances and almost all interior space. There was something new near the door that I noticed on the way out – a big machine with a notice on it. (It wasn’t being used that night.) I took a couple crappy cell-phone pictures of the notice (see above and below) and spoke with a bouncer about it.

The machine scans your ID, and keeps your personal data. It uses this data for a couple of things. One is stats on who’s inside – the sex ratio, the age ranges, etc. The other is for “incidents”. Here’s what it says at the top:

This establishment will be scanning your personal information (Name, Age, and
Photograph) for security purposes only and in compliance with the Gaming
and Liquor Act. If you do not create an incident your personal data will be
permanently deleted within 90 days For more information please visit:

It is notable that this privacy policy allows police to access the information without a subpoena or warrant – just their say-so that it is related to any investigation or enforcement.

First off, the bouncer said, “Why does everybody do that?” (Take a picture of the notice.) He told me a little bit about how it works. He didn’t think it was too bad as-is, but then told me that they would be appearing in more and more clubs, and that if you created an “incident” in one, the others could ban you. This he found “a little Big Brother-ish”.

I totally agree. This destroys all public anonymity, and while there certainly are “incidents” and security is important, this is prosecution by the free market. The owners and managers of clubs can ban a person from enjoying their premises, without any semblance of a trial. While this has always been the case, the owners will now have cartel power.

How do you contest a banning? How do you appeal? How long is one banned for? What if you were just unlucky and near a couple of “incidents”? There’s no due process at all, no transparency into the process, and all the power is on the side of the club owners. No doubt, too, racial and other biases will play a part in the strictness of banning – again, with no oversight and no redress.

This is the New Blacklist, and it’s coming soon. And once it’s established in a private-sector, entertainment context – blacklisting customers in a retail setting – this technique will spread to other contexts. Which ones, and in what ways, I don’t know. But I’m sure that it will.

Update: Already active in Australia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s