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Has Santa Monica Place gone too far with its new parking lot surveillance system?

January 24, 2011 |  9:53 am

Find your car

The new souped-up Santa Monica Place mall recently unveiled its latest bell-and-whistle: A "Find Your Car" system that uses surveillance cameras to help shoppers locate their vehicle should they forget where they parked. It's a nifty service, and the first of its kind in the U.S., but it has raised privacy concerns. From Martha Groves' article, "Servant or snoop in the parking garage?":  

Under U.S. law, the entity taking the video owns it and can largely use or share it however it likes as long as the video is taken in public. There is, however, a difference between being allowed to share and being required to share. Police do have the power to compel the owner of the video to share it, usually through a subpoena.

 

"What should give people pause is that this technology is advancing upon us without anyone having chosen it," said Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, which studies national security issues. "We have not decided as a society or as individuals that we want this convenience. It is being thrust upon us."

That's true, though having cameras in the mall parking lot is pretty inconsequential if you look at the big picture. We already live in a surveillance society. Walk across the street from Santa Monica Place to the pier and chances are Dr. Mark Berman's webcam is going to catch you. Look up your address on Google Maps and you'll see a closeup of your house and most likely your car, too. Walk through the scanner at the airport and have a perfect stranger (in a TSA uniform) get a good look at your unclothed essence. And how about shopping on Amazon, where cookies track your every click so that the Web store can sell to you based on previous purchases?  

But it's not just Big Brother who's watching us from the center of the Panopticon. We hold just as many cards. Forget the voyeuristic appeal of reality TV. In the very real world, anyone with an ounce of technological savvy can become Harriet the Spy. Beyond looking up old boyfriends on Facebook, people can use apps such as iSpy to monitor surveillance cameras around the world in real time. Why that would be appealing, I have no idea, but  "Studio 360" reporter Eric Molinsky  rather enjoys it.  And you want to talk about privacy gone awry -- what about WikiLeaks, which is all about exposing supposedly private conversations among people in government?

For better and for worse, this is the society we live in now. And within that context, the mall's car-finder is hardly a big deal -- and I'm not just saying that because I'm one of those people who'll most likely take advantage of the new service.

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Photo: Andrea Minnich of San Pedro uses a "Find Your Car" kiosk at Santa Monica Place. Credit: Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times

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