The 21st-Century Peep Show

Big Brother's got you under surveillance. But so does little sister.

In legal circles, "the types of solutions that are fashionable right now involve harnessing the wisdom of the crowds to solve legal problems," Palfrey says. "But what if the wisdom of the crowd is wrong?"

To the Holla Back group, these kinds of objections are exhausting. "We're targeting a cultural institution, not persecuting one man," Carter says. "This is totally about the woman" and empowering her "to do something practical about an issue."

Like Carter, Plaut says she isn't going for an America's Most Wanted effect. For her, posting photos "is more about the beginning of why I started blogging: to say, this is what happened in my night. If I was just putting revenge pictures up, it would get boring."

Cabbie Melissa Plaut: I sometimes find myself wishing I had something other than a camera to shoot them with."
Cabbie Melissa Plaut: I sometimes find myself wishing I had something other than a camera to shoot them with."

Plaut says taking the picture is the end in itself. "Whether or not it goes on the blog doesn't matter," she says. "It's something I can do. I can't run them over, or get into a fistfight or take retribution—I don't have time for that." Many of her photos— anywhere from one to 20 per day—don't even make it online, she says.

The ill effects that most critics of this type of site caution against stem not from snapping a picture with a digital camera but from posting it before a potential audience of nearly 1 billion people.

Last August, when Plaut began blogging, she envisioned her site as a spot for friends to see photos from her shifts, inundated as she was with questions about what it's really like to drive a cab. So the decision to post a picture of a license plate belonging to a bad Jersey driver—in that first month, when the site generated less than 50 hits per day—wasn't difficult. "When I was still anonymous, it didn't bother me," says Plaut. "Recently I've been more concerned because my name is attached. What freed me to even do the blog was the anonymity and the fact that only people who knew me and liked me were going to be reading it."

Now, Hack gets hit anywhere from 4,000 to 9,000 times a day. "I try not to think about it," she says.

The small act of dealing with another individual takes on a life of its own when shared in the public space that is the Internet, and Holla Back knows this. While the group says snapping without posting is fine, in fact, "publishing is the key—testifying that this happened to you, publicly acknowledging it," says Emily May, one of Holla Back's other founders. "We're really interested in the place where the picture comes in, because that's what gets people's attention."

None of the stars of the Hack or Holla Back photo galleries have spoken up or complained about their pictures, according to Carter and Plaut (both of whom say they will take down a photo if need be, although once it's posted it may live forever). If undesirable consequences of the snap-and-post are expected to materialize, they haven't yet. And statistics for this kind of activity—people claiming they've been marred by something on the Web—aren't available in the U.S. But in South Korea, home to the unruly dog poop mob, incidents of cyber-violence have increased to such an extent (slander complaints to the Korea Internet Safety Commission reportedly tripled to 3,933 in 2005) that the government plans to require that citizens register for Internet use with full names and special cyber–identification numbers. So at least in South Korea, it will be everyone, not just wrongdoers, who is giving up some privacy.

South Korea, with the highest per capita rate of broadband Internet connections, is the most wired country in the world, and Palfrey cautions against drawing much of a parallel with the U.S.—for one thing, the South Korean government is more heavily involved in subsidizing new technology and encouraging people to go online. But the link between person-to-person incidents of cyber-violence and government surveillance is noteworthy in light of Bill Brown's view that supporting any kind of citizen-on-citizen camera use contributes to the overall surveillance problem.

Whether or not all privacy activists agree with Brown—Rotenberg believes his stance is too extreme, though Brown pushes for some of the same surveillance restraints EPIC does—one thing is certain: The advancing technology is eroding privacy, and brothers both big and little are beneficiaries of your information.

Palfrey suggests attitude adjustment as a way to deal with it: "People should get smarter about managing their identities online and factor that into their decision-making process before they do something stupid—or even not stupid—but something in public that could be broadcast to the rest of the world instantaneously."

While many privacy experts are fighting for a reversal of the trend, people like David Brin and Steve Mann are busy embracing it. For them, the embarrassment stemming from a photo beamed round the globe will be mitigated by the photo subject's ability to know the credit rating, criminal history, and bill of health of anyone who dares throw a stone.

"Is this a horrible future? Or actually a return to what we've always had in the past?" Brin says. "Think of old villages. Everybody knew everything about everybody else. Strangers were intimidating and worrisome. This will be like the village our ancestors grew up in, only with 7 billion people."

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