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CCTV Selfies: I Turned City Surveillance into My Personal Photographer

A portrait of surveillance around Dublin via CCTV selfies.

Greetings from Dublin, where rain splashes the lenses of countless CCTV cameras looking down below a gloomy March sky.

Last week I did a CCTV tour of my hometown, finding Dublin's public cameras and taking selfies with them. I did this using Evercam, a suite of apps which allows users to stream public camera feeds and make screengrabs.

It's not something I had expected to be so easily accessible, but many of the cameras belong to Dublin City Council, making them public, and the app I used gathers all their live feeds into one place.

The author on a public CCTV camera. Image: Roisin Kiberd

The strangest part of the process is actually taking the pictures: I stand on footpaths and traffic islands holding my tablet, waiting for vans to pass and for people to move out of the way, till finally my own distant outline comes into shot. It's one thing to have a friend taking a picture, another entirely when a machine holds the lens and silently tells you to say cheese.

"You have more rights to your image on CCTV than you do your Facebook photos."

Evercam was founded in Dublin in 2013 by Marco Herbst and Vinnie Quinn, evolving out of their CCTV service Camba.tv. The eight Evercam apps for Android (iOS versions are nearly ready to be launched) scan public CCTV cameras both locally and worldwide and allow the user to gather their feeds into a single interface. They can then take screenshots from public cams, turn mobile devices into personal cameras, and even configure personal cameras to reply to tweets with an image.

I spoke to Quinn at Evercam's office in Dublin's docklands, not far from two public cameras listed on their app (with another private camera in their office). Though he acknowledged the sinister ramifications of surveillance, Quinn spoke about Evercam as a platform for education and experimentation. "You have more rights to your image on CCTV than you do your Facebook photos," he explained, alluding to how your image on CCTV can be reclaimed if you ask for it, and is most often destroyed after 30 days, while images shared to social platforms are liable to show up in "social advertising."

The author caught in the background on the Evercam office camera. Image: Roisin Kiberd

Evercam wants to drag an old form of tech into modernity, making it mobile and hackable to developers. Even the word "CCTV" is antiquated: "Closed Circuit TV is a pre-internet term," said Quinn. "The new one is IP [Internet protocol] CCTV, though CCTV remains the generic usage."

It felt dystopian and delightfully creepy, using Evercam to turn state surveillance into a personal tool. I discovered that CCTV cameras are undependable: one that I tracked down was clouded up with raindrops, and another two were offline. The quality of the images, too, was sometimes dubious. But then the novelty was not so much in the pictures as in their having been seized back from the city.

The first CCTV camera was created in 1942 in Germany, built to record the launch of V-2 rockets. Then in 1968, New York became the first city to install them on streets to monitor crime. In 2011, the United Kingdom was declared the world's most spied-upon nation, with 20 percent of the world's CCTV cameras for one percent of the world's population. Most of these cameras, however, are private, used by businesses for insurance reasons. Today, basic IP cameras are for sale at Lidl, and pan-tilt-zoom cameras can be bought on Ebay for as little as £50 ($75).

Some of the public cameras in Dublin. Screenshot: Evercam

Apps like Evercam play a role in turning our surveillance society into a surveillance culture, one where we interact with the watchers, manipulating and monitoring them in turn. Quinn envisions a future of conditional cameras designed for safety: cameras in buildings prone to earthquakes or fire, which activate only when the heat rises or the walls begin to shake. Far beyond simple insurance, the camera will be your black box for life.

One thing Evercam makes users very aware of is that their body is a kind of public property. I used to believe that this was unique to being a woman, or part of a minority, or somehow "different" enough to merit being watched. But everyone is watched, some less visibly than others, and passing through a shop, or public concourse, or stepping into someone's home is a spatial contract.

Image: Roisin Kiberd

It's no longer just public figures who belong to the public: spending the day watching myself being watched, I became more aware that I participate in the city, the lenses, networks and circuits which are its veins and eyes and blood. Even on dull Sundays when I only go out to buy milk, I swim through Dublin and send ripples.

"The only logical next step is that everyone will wear a camera," Quinn told me, noting how US police have started wearing cameras since Ferguson and teachers have come to accept cameras in the classroom. CCTV cameras operate as faultless extensions of the eye, a harbinger of our cyborg future which has been around since the 60s.

Many of us were born into a surveilled-upon world, and now children actively contribute images to social media from birth, participating in a "public space" no different to a CCTV-monitored town centre. Quinn pointed out that most of us already carry a small-scale surveillance tool in our pockets: Evercam is simply helping to connect the dots.

"Cameras aren't going away," he said with certainty. "We're going to have to make sense of our relationships with them."