Will Mandatory Rear-View Cameras Usher In A New Surveillance State?

In the next few years, every single car sold in America will have to come equipped with a rear-view camera. This is partially due to the power of the Very Small Dog lobby and the fact that we, as a nation, are sick of buying new R/C cars and Big Wheels. It also opens up unprecedented surveillance possibilities.

Now, I'm not trying to be an alarmist, or suggest that this is only going to have negative outcomes. The fundamental camera systems themselves have huge benefits to drivers, as they really do offer vastly more rearward vision and free stylists and aerodynamicists from a number of constraints. That's the basic function of the cameras as individual, isolated units.

But when the cameras become mandatory, we have to evaluate this in terms of an overall network, or system. What this means is something that's never really existed before on this scale: potentially millions and millions (many are already out there on cars, as lane-assist cameras and rear-view cameras) of powered-up and very likely connected digital video cameras distributed throughout the entire country.

Now, not every car is capable of digital connectivity to a larger network, but WiFi hotspots in cars and nav systems, connections to concierge services like OnStar, and 4G or better cell integration into cars is becoming increasingly common. I think it's very reasonable to expect that the average car of 2018, when the mandatory rear-view camera law takes effect, will have some form of data connectivity to at least some servers in that big cloud.

Will Mandatory Rear-View Cameras Usher In A New Surveillance State?

Even now most Americans carry a small connected computer and camera in their pockets or purses in the form of a smartphone, but those are often in sleep mode and enclosed in the warm, welcoming folds of our pants. Car rear-view cameras are supplied with power whenever the car is on, and it's just software that decides when that camera gets activated. All those cars driving around with all those cameras will represent the largest, most flexible network of cameras ever fielded by anyone, ever.

Let's think about the possibilities for a moment. If we assume that there will be ways to get a given car's GPS location and remotely activate its camera (not unrealistic assumptions at all) then think about what that could do for a manhunt.

Let's say there's an armed lunatic or terrorist or fashionista running out of control in some city. Cops only know a general area where he is. If police could turn on rear-view (and other) cameras in cars in the area, they've now managed to have a vast number of mobile eyes looking for the suspect. Video feeds from given cars would be sent to computers for automated image identification or whatever they do. The point is, there's now movable cameras pretty much everywhere.

Think about the possibilities for random, dynamic inspections of road and traffic conditions, or instant evaluations of accidents right after or as they happen. Think about locating a stolen car by getting a video stream from it to see where it's being driven.

Will Mandatory Rear-View Cameras Usher In A New Surveillance State?

It's possible that before a given camera's feed was transmitted, a message on the car's dash would appear, asking the driver to give permission to use the feed. That's the best case scenario, and I think I'd be pretty naive, based on what we know about NSA wiretaps and all that, to think that would be the only way car camera footage could be accessed.

There is, of course, a huge potential for abuse and even further losses of privacy when such a network of driving cameras starts to fill our streets. We will quite literally be living in a world with eyes around us at all times, to an even greater degree than we are today. Even more rural areas normally underserved by security and surveillance cameras can now easily and cheaply (and often, even inadvertently) populated with cameras.

I'm honestly not sure how to feel about this. I don't think I'm being paranoid, and I'd have to be a fool (or an idiot — I can do both) to think that I'm the first one to consider this. There's certainly potential for good here as well — from helping keep the world safer from crime, keeping authority figures from abusing power, and possibly even a lot of interesting artistic and scientific possibilities as well — a video installation of random, changing rear-view camera pics would probably be fascinating, and I'm sure there's lots scientists could learn from access to such video feeds.

But as much positive potential that these cameras offer us, there's still a huge likelihood that this visual network will be used in ways that destroys more of our privacy. I don't have a clear answer here, but I think it's time to start this conversation, before the back end of every car on the street grows an all-seeing eye.