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Paying for Our Own Surveillance

The podcast I started in 2006 has morphed into a weekly radio show on a local, subscriber-supported radio station. The station subsists on the financial support from the community, the volunteered talents of key individuals, and the rent-free use of our studio space by the owner of the building.  Without the financial support, the volunteer expertise and the rent-free space, there would be no station. Pull any element from that triad and the whole thing falls apart.

A couple of days ago, someone vandalized a public restroom in a common area of the building. I don't know why, but there was some fear that this would get pinned on the radio station and possibly threaten our rent-free status there.This started a discussion on an email list in which various players at the radio station started kicking around ideas to increase security and prevent future occurrences like this one. I've been a member of this community for a little less than a year, and I have a shaky-at-best grasp of the interpersonal dynamics at work. Someone mentioned that they'd be willing to kick in some money for a system of security cameras, and then other folks, some of whom are tenants of the building but not part of the radio station made additional pledges of support, and then the idea gained momentum. I was not a party to the discussion at first, but this morning I chimed in.

Before I entered into the conversation, I had only seen messages of support for the camera system. That seemed a little odd given that we're talking about a free-form radio station in Yankeedom. A freak-magnet like that would attract at least a few paranoids, or so I thought. How strange that the weirdos would so readily offer to open up their wallets to accelerate the proliferation of cameras in our over-surveilled but under-apprehended world. Little did I know that the conversation was taking place over two email lists; one for content creators and one for board members. I am the former and not the latter. It turns out that someone on the board members list did object to the proposed security system arguing that if there's money available for such a system, the building has other needs, like a leaky roof, that should take precedence.
My own thoughts on the matter did not rise to the level of "objection." My thought was that nobody was proposing putting cameras in the public toilet even though that's where the vandalism took place, and so there is no reason to think that cameras in other areas would deter a repeat occurrence. Makes sense, right?

I also said, and here I thought myself very clever, that we could just put up a sign that warns that anyone entering the building will be subject to "electronic surveillance" and not bother with the cameras. Why is that so clever? Because we ARE all subject to electronic surveillance, regardless of whether we go anywhere near a certain brick building on the island in Bellows Falls which is home to various artists' studios and a freaky little radio station.
We open our wallets, real and virtual, to pay for our own surveillance in the form of smartphones, tablets, navigation systems and the like. We also pay for our own surveillance with our tax dollars. Our government and the corporations that provide us with ostensibly free email, social media platforms, music, video and games devote themselves to collecting all the little flakes of digital skin that we shed all day long. They use that data to map our network of relationships. They assign us to secret tribes that we ourselves don't know we belong to. They use this information to predict how we'll vote, what we'll believe and what we will dismiss as "fake news" or "conspiracy theory."

We help them out by "tagging" ourselves and our friends in photos and thus training-up the facial recognition algorithms that will pull our faces from oceans of surveillance camera footage. We spend our time telling them what movies and TV shows we like, where we went to school, where we've worked and lived in the past. We provide them with photos of what we looked like when we were young, as well as with photos of our siblings, parents and more distant relatives. We provide them with an endless stream of photos of our pets and adorable anecdotes about their antics.

I'm really not worried that a couple of cameras at the place where I go to do my weekly radio show is going to add all that much to the total information awareness campaign that is already well established. Heck, when I get to the station, I sign a log book to document my participation there and then I announce my presence by speaking into a microphone and broadcasting my words for miles in all directions. I don't do a radio show in the hopes of keeping it on the DL. I'm not threatened by another drop of surveillance, but I'm not going to offer to help pay for it. That was probably what got me to enter into the conversation; the need to justify my own lack of financial support for the proposed self-surveillance system.

In terms of preventing vandalism or worse, the proposed system is irrelevant. Its main value is psychological. It gives the people who helped pay for it the satisfaction that they "did something." I need what little money I manage to hold onto a whole lot more than I need whatever psychological consolation shopping for security talismans can buy.


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 1st, 2017 04:38 am (UTC)
I am Surveilled
You wrote that, "Without the financial support, the volunteer expertise and the rent-free space, there would be no station." There is also the Bandwidth occupied that WOOL may or may not pay for. I don't have knowledge of it either way,
but that would also be a subsidy that I consider worthwhile.
Mark Piepkorn
Apr. 1st, 2017 04:25 pm (UTC)
Re: I am Surveilled
It's true, noncommercial-educational radio stations don't pay FCC licensing fees. Including all NPR stations.
Mark Piepkorn
Apr. 1st, 2017 04:10 pm (UTC)
The other parts (pt 1)
It's likely that the camera thing won't happen at the station. It's been shot down by the board before on purely philosophical grounds - reasons that I happen to agree with in the largeness of things - with resistance led by people who aren't involved in the day-to-day keeping-on of the station's wheels. Trenches vs towers.

I'm a fan of KMO, a volunteer at the radio station he's talking about, and the actual person behind this push for the video surveillance system. KMO's points are reasonably made and in the big general brush of life I agree with most of it. With vigor, even! But for our specific situation, this piece lacks history and nuance, gets some facts wrong, and omits others. So I'm'a open my yap to clarify and expand on some things, and provide some context from my perspective about the specific situation used as KMO's launching pad for his valid larger points.

KMO wrote, "I don't know why, but there was some fear that this would get pinned on the radio station." It's because in earlier years the radio station's volunteers earned and deserved the reputation for being the source of most of those sorts of shenanigans. The station's relationship with the building owners and other tenants became terribly strained, the potential loss of the space became frighteningly real, and it's been a long, difficult, and ongoing slog overcoming our past. I'm proud of our little paranoid weirdo freak magnet - except when any of the paranoid weirdo freaks needlessly swings their arms into other people's noses, or shits in our collective bed.

The current push for a surveillance system did come up after the most recent episode of kiddie-style bathroom vandalism. And I have to grant that the way the two things intertwined, it would have seemed to be cause-and-effect, especially to anybody relatively recent to the station. Not providing the complete backstory then and there for those who didn't know it is my fail to own.

After the latest bathroom caper, I wrote a reminder to the host email list that the studio space is donated, and that the least we can do in return is keep our eyes open for any problems in the building, and do something about any problems if possible. Which I don't think is sinister in any way. It's right and compassionate to have the backs of our friends and neighbors, who in this case also happen to be station supporters.

But this is where things got messy: As an afterthought in that email, I wrote, "Personally, I've been in favor of the station popping for video surveillance for quite a while... We've seen major vandalism happen in our community: the Boys & Girls Club, Harlow's, the high school, for starters. If somebody messed with the studio for yucks, it would be catastrophic." I went from the bathroom stupidity to a thing that was peripherally related at best, getting there by way of unrelated episodes of actual major hooliganism. In hindsight that was lame.

I became an advocate for a surveillance system in the station's studio (but not surveillance systems in general) during a painfully protracted time of theft from and damage to the station by its own people. We lost far more money than the cost of a cheap camera system, and volunteers had to spend way more time cleaning up and fixing up after other volunteers than ever should have to happen. There were never any confessions, of course, and no way to prove who might have done what. So it just kept going. Eventually, the most likely problem people finally all churned out, and the dust settled a lot.

Things still occasionally go missing or get mysteriously broken, and it breaks my heart when nobody owns up. Overall, though, we've had a wonderful set of folks over the past couple-three years. But the fact is that there's a constant churn of program hosts, usually people we don't know, who we allow into the studio unsupervised after three training sessions. To think that there won't be any problems going forward like those we've had in the past would be foolish.
Mark Piepkorn
Apr. 1st, 2017 04:12 pm (UTC)
Re: The other parts (pt 2)
Another wrinkle, and a really important one, is that we have volunteers concerned for their personal safety. Sometimes they're the only person in the building even during day hours when the building is supposed to be left open. I'm not going to discount that anxiety, and I won't put the onus back on them by saying it's their choice to be out in the world, that they don't need to have a radio show. The people with that concern were among the first to support the latest push for cameras, and good for them. I'm cursed with this opinion that the station is a collective of individuals who respect and are concerned for each other, and for our mutual investment of effort and time and care, despite so much evidence to the contrary.

KMO wrote, "Little did I know that the conversation was taking place over two email lists; one for content creators and one for board members... It turns out that someone on the board members list did object to the proposed security system arguing that if there's money available for such a system, the building has other needs, like a leaky roof, that should take precedence." Two email lists, yes, plus the building's other stakeholders (the tenants and owners). None of it secret or hidden, but there were and are separate conversations going on that sometimes overlap (non-members can't post to the closed email lists, so things fork). The dissent mentioned was from a tenant, not a board member. She raised good points about other things that need attention, but the radio station has no purview over building improvements; and the couple hundred bucks for a cheap camera system (which the building owners aren't on the hook for and have no part in beyond granting permission for it) won't go far in fixing the problems cited.

As noted, the money pledged for the camera system was entirely unsolicited. The initial pledges came from longtime intimates of the station who are familiar with its successes and failures over the years, and know where its strengths and weaknesses have been. Two people have spoken up passionately with reasoned responses against the system on general grounds (KMO isn't passionately against it so isn't one of those two), and I actually do agree with them, and with KMO's large context points. There's also been a lazy "me too" against, which offered nothing of substance. The nays currently trail by a wide margin.

The board hasn't met to discuss it yet, though, and I expect they'll reject it again on principle, without offering any alternatives, time, or on-the-ground involvement for dealing with the issues a video system in the studio is intended to address. Me, I'm done taking care of those problems whether or not there's surveillance. This push is for the benefit of whoever steps into that vacuum next.
Apr. 2nd, 2017 05:34 pm (UTC)
We open our wallets, real and virtual, to pay for our own surveillance in the form of smartphones, tablets, navigation systems and the like.

Actually, add surveillance cameras to that list. One of the more popular camera systems is in the Nest line. It's cheap, about $15 for the basic model. It has, though, online storage, not offline hard drive storage. The "cloud" (how I detest that term) storage is cheap as well, but I can't help but wonder what kind of information the cloud provider is getting from these cameras.

(Full disclosure: I haven't shopped for them myself, and therefore do not know if a hard drive storage option is available. Given the Googly source, though, my suspicions remain.)
Bill Hulet
Apr. 3rd, 2017 10:44 pm (UTC)
Surveillance in General
I have a friend who routinely FREAKS about government surveillance. But she lives in a rent-geared-to-income housing situation, and she became very, very afraid that the "super" was getting into her apartment when she wasn't there, and was doing something or other. She got kinda agitated about that, so I told her I'd get her a trail camera and hide it in her apartment so she'd have hard evidence if the guy was coming into her space. Before I could learn how to set the thing up for her, she got talking to the guy and decided that he was OK after all. The trail camera is now on my desk gathering dust and I probably will end up sending it off to a thrift store.

I suppose I'm just more sanguine about this sort of stuff. In your shoes, KMO, I'd a lot more afraid of the radio station self-destructing than "the man" taking over you life because of a few surveillance cameras. Don't forget that these cameras would also record the police or FBI if they decided to break into the radio station for nefarious deeds. If we didn't have cell phone cameras, how many fewer white people would be prepared to believe that the cops more that a few times loose their marbles and kill people for no reason at all?

The knife cuts both ways---.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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