Global Neighborhood Watch
16 November, 1995
"Windows are the best crime-prevention devices of all, if you only bother to look out of them. The virtual windows on a computer screen could serve the same function, linking distant places into a distributed neighborhood."
- Neal Stephenson, "Global Neighborhood Watch"
Neal Stephenson, cyberpunk visionary and author of Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, contributed the essay "Global Neighborhood Watch" to Scenarios: The Future of the Future. The article is a call to arms for concerned, techno-savvy citizens; Stephenson outlays a plan to prototype a home-computer-networked surveillance system to track crime at strategic points across the globe. kadrey says: Welcome to another interview in our series with writers and thinkers who contributed to Wired's *Scenario: The Future of the Future* special issue. Tonight's guest is Neal Stephenson, best known as the author of such heavy-weight science fiction novels Snowcrash and The Diamond Age. kadrey asks: In the Scenarios issue, Neal contributed an essay/proposal entitled "Global Neighborhood Watch." For anyone who might have missed it, can you explain the basic concept of the Global Neighborhood Watch project?
It is an electronic extension of existing, traditional neighborhoods.
The idea is that just as we currently keep an eye on our nieghbors' houses by looking out of our windows, we can keep an eye on a virtual neighbor's house on the other side of the world by looking through a window on a computer screen. rossum asks: How do you define a "virtual neighbor"?
The key to this idea would be creating sibling-neighborhood relationships with neighborhoods in other parts of the world - preferably in different time zones so that someone in the extended neighborhood is always awake. Just as I don't want to have total strangers (e.g., cops or rent-a-cops) in my neighborhood doing surveillance on me, I don't want strangers on the Net doing it either.
Instead I'd lilke a close relationship with a specific group of people in some other country who are familiar with my face and with my comings and goings. scrow asks: What possible benefit could outweigh the outrageous abuse potential?
Our privacy would be a null concept....
I would not do this if I thought there was no way to protect my privacy in the process. To begin with, the cameras would be aimed mostly at parked cars, basement windows, and garages. Secondly, they would be rigged in such a way that they would only come on and transmit video when something was moving. Third, it would be possible to shut them off at any time if you wanted some privacy.
Finally, I am exploring ways to encrypt the video signal so that it can only be read by people who are in the sibling neighborhood. kadrey says: That last bit was one of my questions: how do you prevent your signal from being used as a sort of wiretap surrogate? Of course, the point becomes moot if there are only governmment-authorized encryption systems in use.
tom5 asks: What is needed in the Global Neighborhood Watch is the equivalent of
PORCHES: a way of interacting with the observed space.
That's a good idea. The nice thing about porch-based neighborhood surveillance is that you can see the people who are seeing you (as opposed to peeking out through the curtains). kadrey says: Your idea seems as much about community as it does about security. clabberboy asks: Why not just have a community hire out a local security gaurd to watch the cameras? If the gaurd was only a few blocks away (as opposed to a few continents), wouldn't they have a better chance to fix things if something went wrong (like a criminal cutting the wire to the cameras)?
We investigated that idea in our neighborhood. There are some problems. First of all, the people who work for rent-a-cop agencies are not always people you want to have hanging around your neighborhood.
Secondly, the cost is so high that if you are a middle-class neighborhood you can't really afford it unless you pool so many houses that the rent-a-cop has to watch a very large area, which reduces his effectiveness. Finally, it is my feeling that community problems should be addressed by some kind of community action rather than by writing out checks. kadrey asks: Is the GNW idea original with you, or did you pick it up somewhere and decide to run with it?
When I present an idea I did not make up, I give credit where credit is due. It frquently happens that different people independently come up with similar ideas, and so I consider it quite likely that others have come up with ideas similar to this one, thought I haven't seen it mentioned anywhere else. In fact
I have heard from several people who were thinking along the same lines before my article came out. alguy asks: So the surveillance would be by "siblings" and not by organizations, such as government? [BTW, loved Zodiac)
Correct. If you go to the UK you see government-controlled surveillance cameras all over the place. I don't like that. I'd feel much more comfortable with cameras that could only be monitored by people I knew. kadrey says: I didn't mean to imply that the idea wasn't original with you, simply that once you see it in writing, it seems so simple and obvious a notion that it's shocking you haven't seen it before. Which is probably a description of most successful inventions/ideas.
I'm looking at questions.... kadrey says: How long have you been working on the idea now?
I started thinking about it on Memorial Day weekend when my neighbor was assaulted. I've been investigating different technologies since then. kadrey asks Have any promising technologies or collaborators in other countries turned up since then?
jonl asks: It's hard enough to get local response, I'm still not getting how somebody 3 time zones away is going to intervene if there's a problem...?
I've been thinking about different possible approaches to that problem. Haven't really decided on anything yet. The simplest approach is that the watcher just calls you on the telephone and wakes you up. It is possible to get more complicated from there. Since this is not an organized program (just an idea, really) I'm guessing that different people will try different approaches.
Haven't heard from anyone outside of North America yet. I did get heavy skepticism from one Brit who considers the whole idea impossible given the current high cost of Internet hookups outside the US. It's damn near too expensive here. kadrey says: That's an interesting problem. Perhaps there will be some sort of passive Net channel in the future with low-cost access, sort of like Universal
Life Line phone service?
bslesins asks: Any progress on getting ISDN hooked up?
The one USWest employee who apparently does ISDN for the entire Eastern Seaboard still has not answered my phone calls.
Excuse me, that should be Western Seaboard.
Right now I'm upgrading my Linux box and so that has kept me busy and I have not been pestering this guy as much as I'll probably have to. stac asks: I live in Brighton, UK. (well, hove actually) We have unregulated
Police security cameras watching our every move in the town centre. While GNW is a more community-based concept than Brighton's "Big Brother" - how do you propose letting the people being watched know that it's 'friendly' surviellance, and not just more of the same?
Depends on whom you mean. If by "people being watched" you mean criminals, then
I don't see any need to be friendly. If you mean the neighbors, then they should know it's friendly because if this is done right it will be done as a neighborhood project. geebee asks: You said you want to know the people that are going to be monitoring the cameras. What sort of screening process are you proposing? How are you planning on introducing communities to one another? What if member in the community sabotage the system? Punishment?
I think that these are legitimate and interesting questions but I'm nowhere near having to worry about such issues yet. kadrey asks: The whole idea of setting up video surveillance seems to have touched a nerve with people. I suppose part of the concern is that once you set up the system, it's possible to lose control of it.
One wants to set it up in such a way as to minimize that possibility. For example, the cameras have to have a power source. Presumably that is going to come from inside the house. So you can shut off the cameras on your house just by pulling the plug. Beyond that, I think that crypto will be a really important part of making this a responsible system.
It is all about tradeoffs. When people see crime in their neighborhoods that have all kinds of reactions. Many of these are pathological in my opinion.
Hiring rent-a-cops, raising tax rates to beef up the size of the police force, moving out to gated communities in the suburbs - these are all responses to crime that give me the willies for one reason or another. I'm trying to dream up a response that is more community-based and benign. stac asks: ISDN is prohibitively expensive here 0 400GBP for installation -
about 600 dollars - and the penetration of Net-savvy types, while growing, is still as far as I know, low. Wouldn't the effort put into GNW be more useful directed towards traditional Neighbourhood Watch schemes, which have proved fairly effective (at least over here)?
By all means. I think it would be a waste of time to begin fooling around with all of this technology until the neighborhood was well organized and had set up its own schemes for discouraging crime. Once that's done, GNW can perhaps offer some additional security if it can be done wtihout spending a huge amount of money.
Right now it can't be done cheaply but this is likely to change. tom5 asks: Two words: implied use of force, and GNW!
Neither I nor anyone in my 'hood is interested in use of force. The people who cause us problems are not hardened violent criminals. They are mostly opportunists who go away as soon as they know that their activities have been observed. If it gets to the point where force is necessary, then it's time to call the cops. valis asks: Will this project work in all neighborhoods? How about the projects?
I would hope that it would work in projects. As always, there are economic barriers. Middle class people will get over those barriers before project dwellers. But certainly crime is more of an issue in projects than in middle-class 'hoods and so they would have more to gain by reducing it. rossum asks: This is a very high-resouce plan- What about those who can't afford a half-dozen cameras on their house?
I'm really concerned about the cost issue, and so I'm trying to do it with a minimum of expense. A QuickCam costs US$100. You can get a used computer for a few hundred and set it up to run a free OS like Linux. Bandwidth is still expensive but ought to start getting cheaper soon. Basically, this is not a very interesting project if it costs a hundred thousand bucks to set it up. If it can be done for a few thousand (or for a figure that is comparable to the cost of crime in the 'hood) then it becomes economically feasible. scrow asks: I've got 2 HUGE problems with things you (Neal) just said- #1. You assume that criminals are identified from the get go and that #2 Not near answering these questions?!?!?! Why not? They're integral concerns!
#1: The purpose of having the thing neighborhood-based is to prevent misidentification. There is a black family next door to us that includes a teenaged kid who likes to work on cars. The cops are always hassling him because when they see a teenage black kid with his head under a dashboard, they assume he's stealing the car. They don't know the neighborhood. But we who live here do know it and so we recognize this kid and we don't react in an inappropriate way.
#2: I don't disagree that these are crucial issues, just that I'm improvising this thing one little bit at a time, in my very limited spare time, and I can't figure out all of the answers ahead of time. I just have to make it up as I go along. gwire asks: does the whole system rely heavily on the communications links between each area being extremly reliable?
They don't have to be that reliable. It's not the end of the world if a link goes down and someone's car gets ripped off. We are just playing the averages here. scamp asks: Is it discouraging to have everyone react so negatively? How often do you meet with wholehearted enthusiasm, or at least willingness to check it out?
I think that most of the reactions are cautious rather than negative and that they reflect a totally appropriate skepticism about the possible downside of technology. There are plenty of people who are enthusiastic about the idea. scrow asks: Well, I respect your writing, but I gotta say it seems pretty irresponsible to propose something with such possibility for abuse without thinking it through.
I'm just a guy sitting around in his basement dicking around with spare compuuter parts, and have no power to implement such a system all over the country, as a government or major corporation might. It is impossible to think everything through in full detail ahead of time. Basically I'm going to mess around with it informally until I run into a brick wall, and then quit. Other people will be trying other approaches to the crime problem no matter what I do.
Some of these approaches will have a positive social effect and some will have a negative effect. kadrey says: We should probably wrap things up now. Thanks to Neal for coming on and answering people's questions. And thanks for asking so many provocative quetions. stac asks: I like the concept, its just that there as so many potential problems en route to a solution that I (and I suspect many other people) need to get cleared before we can say "yeah, count me in." The rewards could be worthwhile, but the effort is high. Can you really get this idea off the ground in your
"very limited spare time"?
Everyone seems to be making the mistake of thinking that GNW is some kind of a carefully thought-out and centralized program - that there is a policy manual somewhere that can be debated point-by-point. This may be my fault for giving it a catchy name and referring to it with an official sounding acronym. Really it is just an idea that I spun out in the same way that people commonly spin out ideas over a beer, and anyone is free to pick it up and take it in whatever direction they think is appropriate.
The key point I would like to stress is that everyone responds to crime in some way, and many of the existing response patterns are deeply troubling. So I'm trying to come up with a different kind of response. kadrey says: Thanks again to both Neal and our questioners.
I'm out of here - have to go fight crime :)
kadrey says: Thanks, everyone. The Threads discussion will still continue -
HotWired Threads. Goodnight all.