Surveillance placement norms

Surveillance is a pretty in-your-face affair on the streets of Shanghai. American municipalities tend toward more genteel placement of implements when it comes to surveillance, as Mayo Nissen captures in the title of his excellent piece, “Unseen Sensors.” The majority of sidewalk-focused American security cameras appear over the heads of pedestrians, whether private security cameras mounted higher up on exterior building walls, to “public” cameras (like those of the NYPD) mounted on utility poles which also hold streetlights, traffic signals and other municipal mechanics.

This may be a way of keeping the technology out of harm’s way from members of the public who understandably would prefer not to be surveilled, and have no qualms about making that preference known through damaging said surveillance infrastructure. It may be a way of skirting around the awkwardness of this one-way exchange of information – the camera seeing and recording you to log your identity, whilst you learn nothing whatsoever about the entities doing the collecting. 

The typical American city’s attempts at the subtlety and/or sidewalk-level inaccessibility of surveillance stand in stark contrast to the some of the more “in-your-face” surveillance approaches I’ve seen in China. While there are still plenty of out-of-reach cameras, it’s only on the sidewalks of places like Shanghai that I’ve seen surveillance setups such as this which, to an American, might be described as “brazen”; a quartet of security cameras, two pointing in each direction, about 20 feet from the entrance to a narrow alleyway in Shanghai’s Xuhui neighborhood. 

Although there’s no telling where these four feeds go (assuming they all go to the same place), for how long footage is stored, or who sees it, as I was thinking about these things and photographing this camera arrangement, someone pulled into the alley from the nearby street on a scooter and asked me what I was doing. When I replied how I was intrigued by this particular arrangement of cameras, and how this isn’t something one would typically see in America, he replied, pithily, “Well, this isn’t America.” Reading into this a bit more, what can be extrapolated from the seeming indifference to street-level surveillance in China (as reflected in the relatively mint condition of these cameras, short of the predictable weathering from acid rainfall)?

The urban scene that the pair of street-facing cameras point out to is one that nicely sums up this particular neighborhood of Shanghai (for me, at least): a small, open-to-the-sidewalk fruit stand on a pedestrian-filled corner. Makes me wonder whether there’s an equivalent of “WindowSwap” for the lively street corners of the world (h/t to Patrick Tanguay and his fantastic newsletter, Sentiers, for discovering WindowSwap), or a more narrow, digitally-mediated version of Flaneur Magazine (which I’ve just now discovered, and looks fascinating).

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