Dropping the Pin on Surveillance: Capturing Cameras in Geneva

One of the emergent questions from our work in Geneva sheds light on the transparency of the information about the number or location of cameras recording public spaces, especially those that are owned and operated by private security companies. Video cameras provide an interesting entry point to the discussion about this topic because digital technologies usually are more visible to people, and it is relatively easier to understand their functioning.

However, the difficulty in accessing information concerning these technologies - such as where the data are stored and by whom - raises reflections on the importance of transparency both in public and private spheres. Understanding how the digitalization of security is affecting people’s ability to live together in Geneva - that is, how it shapes the city’s social contract - means getting to know the digital technologies in use, what kind of data is collected and how it is stored and used. How information should be made available? What kind of information should be openly accessed? Should the same standards be applied regardless of whether these technologies are owned by public or by private organizations? What happens when we watch what is watching us?

The Edgelands Institute hosted the project “Dropping the Pin on Surveillance” as part of the Festival d'Innovation Ouverte Open Geneva and, during the event, we invited people to photograph, geolocate, and register security cameras in Geneva. To locate these cameras and provide an entry point for a conversation around transparency and surveillance technologies in Geneva, we tested a participatory process that involves residents in the identification and recording of surveillance technologies. The result of this process is an initial map of security cameras in Geneva, a map that is inherently collaborative, and that invites people to see the urban spaces where they move daily with different eyes.

Despite the resulting map provides valuable insights, it does not offer comprehensive coverage. The areas represented on the map primarily reflect the regions frequented by our participants in their daily lives. Therefore, the absence of camera markers in certain regions does not imply a lack of cameras in reality. On March 16, 2023, our mapping endeavor commenced with 134 cameras reported by our volunteers to Open Street Maps (OSM). By April 30, 2023, when we concluded the initial phase of the project, we had received a total of 348 photos and successfully identified an additional 423 cameras.

Among the photos submitted, the majority depicted cameras filming streets, with an exception for those located within train stations. The concentration of cameras is evident around specific buildings and within the premises of train stations. Typically, the cameras are positioned around significant structures, such as firefighters' caserns, banks, hospitals, government buildings, and others. Cameras solely dedicated to surveilling public streets were rare, except for traffic cameras. With few exceptions, the majority of the cameras lacked proper signage. Consequently, there were no indications informing individuals of being under surveillance, nor did they provide information about the responsible entity processing the recorded videos. As a result, determining whether a particular camera's recordings were under the purview of the police, a public institution, a private security company, or an individual entity remained unclear.

These observations raise concerns as they point toward a lack of transparency. As recently experienced by one of our Edgelands team members, accessing information regarding security camera recordings in Geneva has proven to be challenging. Participants agreed with the importance of obtaining more information about security cameras in the city. Some of them shared feelings of discomfort while capturing some of the camera images, especially in specific circumstances involving certain buildings or encounters with police officers or security guards. They experienced a sense of wrongdoing or unease in such situations. The project also had some negative reactions though. Some people were against providing more information about the use and location of the cameras because they feared discovering something they might dislike.

Additionally, as part of this project, we set out to meet some residents and visitors of the city, in order to ask them their feelings about the topics of security and surveillance cameras in the form of a 'Vox Pop', or short interviews, that we filmed in the streets of Geneva. One interviewee in the Vox-Pop stated that they would rather remain uninformed about CCTVs and surveillance. The choice of limiting the amount of available information was also reflected in some of the comments on an Instagram post by the RTS (Radio Télévision Suisse). A majority of the comments were against the project because they thought that providing the locations of video cameras in the city would only benefit criminals. They stated that video cameras increased security in the city, and that providing more transparency would only jeopardize said security by giving more tools to ill-intentioned people.

At the end of “Dropping the Pin in Surveillance” we hosted a space to discuss and reflect on 1. the effectiveness of the applied methodology; and 2. the potential uses of the resulting collection of images, aiming to ensure that our methodology remains collaborative and applicable. We invite you to read some of the conclusions of these interviews here, and to view the resulting video here.

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