I used to spend a lot of time in South Carolina’s capital city. I had regular work trips to Columbia, usually lasting two to three weeks at a time. I hadn’t been back in several years, but recently I had the opportunity to spend a weekend there, and something has changed. Columbia has implemented a very broad public surveillance system. This post will touch on the Columbia SC surveillance system and discuss some of the implications this raises.
The Columbia SC Surveillance Apparatus
I was shocked by the shear number of cameras and “camera boxes” I could see from any given spot in two areas of the city: the college/hipster Five Points area, and the downtown dining and shopping area known as The Vista. I first noticed these camera boxes in Five Points. I had stopped into a local coffee shop and was walking around with a friend, just taking in the area. I happened to glance up and see a placard reading “Camera Box #017”, with no fewer than four cameras protruding from it. There is no practical way to walk down this street or approach this store front without being on camera.
As we continued to stroll around Five Points I noticed more and more cameras. In total I counted over 30 publicly-owned cameras in the central Five Points area. I’m certain I didn’t see all of them.
Unfortunately, these cameras weren’t just contained to Five Points. Heading into the Vista area of downtown Columbia I kept seeing them.
Finally I saw a sign warning individuals of the cameras. The sign is super unspecific about what violations will be prosecuted, or violations of what codes and ordinances. And for that matter, exactly what the heck the cameras are there for.
The bottom line for me is that I won’t be going back to Columbia anytime soon.
Seeing this raised some bigger issues in my mind. It is likely that these cameras are simple surveillance cameras that allow the police department to review footage after a crime has been committed. It is equally likely that this will not be the case for long. These cameras will likely be coupled with some private facial-recognition database in the future. This creates a form of surveillance that is impossible to opt-out of. Couple that with Wi-Fi tracking, phone tracking, and pretty soon it will be possible to track your every move in minute detail. For a long time I’ve been writing about ways to opt-out of surveillance in the digital space. Now we have to worry about it in the physical space.
As a counterpoint, I also saw the sticker below in Columbia. It seems like I’m not the only one concerned about the city’s pervasive surveillance apparatus, which is slightly encouraging.