Keeping an eye on the neighbourhood

Last Updated 22 February 2015, 18:08 IST

When I set up a Dropcam last year, my original goal certainly wasn’t to become some sort of neighbourhood watchdog.

Dropcam, which was acquired by Google’s Nest Labs for $555 million last year, sells Internet-connected video cameras that can constantly stream video and store it to the cloud for a monthly fee of at least $10 (Rs 620). The video is then easily viewable through mobile apps or a web browser.

The setup is fairly straightforward: You plug the camera into a power outlet, start the Dropcam mobile app and connect the camera to your Wi-Fi network.

In my first few months with a Dropcam, I did what any unimaginative tech user would do: I pointed the camera into the living room to spy on my cat and two dogs while I was away from my apartment in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Alas, the cat spent most of her days napping in the sun, and the dogs did little more than bark at the occasional skateboarder rolling by outside or the janitor vacuuming in the hallway.

The Dropcam was shaping up to be yet another neglected $200 (Rs 12,426) gadget in the junk drawer.

Then my girlfriend hit upon the Dropcam sweet spot: She pointed the camera out the third-floor window at our driveway so she could check the video on her smartphone to look out for pedestrians on the sidewalk while backing the car out of the garage.
Cats and dogs are a bit boring, but it turns out my neighbourhood is not.

One Saturday afternoon, I came home to an unusually large patch of faeces flattened onto our driveway. Someone, I thought, should really remember to pick up after their dog.
Except it wasn’t a dog.

I opened my laptop and logged on to the Dropcam website to search the video for the instant the excrement appeared. The video revealed that at about 12:30 p.m., a man in dark clothes and a bright-orange baseball cap casually strolled past my driveway. It happened so quickly and so swiftly - in a split second, he gave his leg a shake and unloaded his gift through his pants leg. Then he marched away.

But that solved only half the mystery. About five minutes later in the video, I saw the poor soul who stepped in the pile and then spent a good minute and a half trying to scrape it off his shoe onto the sidewalk curb.

After that, the Dropcam kept an eye on the street and I became a bit of a neighbourhood hall monitor. One evening, I heard the sound of metal being smashed and brakes screeching. I looked out and saw a man who had fallen off his bicycle, apparently after colliding with a car.

My girlfriend ran outside to see if the cyclist was OK while I checked the video. Sure enough, it showed a turquoise car ramming into the cyclist in the middle of a turn. The cyclist slowly stood up and exchanged a few words with the driver, who stayed in her car with the window rolled down. I eventually emailed the clip of the video to the bicyclist in case he was filing an insurance claim or a police report.

Over the weeks that followed, the Dropcam captured more car accidents and odd incidents, including one night when a man lit firecrackers in the middle of the street and nonchalantly walked away from the explosions.

Who knew that just a tiny tweak - pointing the camera out the window - would transform the Dropcam into a powerful surveillance tool?

I live in a mixed-income neighbourhood, where homelessness and drug use mix with chic restaurants, and gentrification is probably just as feared as burglary. Peace of mind, even if it comes from a $200 (Rs 12,426) gadget, is not such a bad thing.

But was I really helping the neighbourhood or simply spying for my amusement? Critics of video surveillance say it is not just expensive but also largely ineffective. In 2009, a statistical study by New York University found that video surveillance did not deter criminal activity much, if at all.

Some case studies have pointed to video surveillance - like the ubiquitous video camera system in London - as a valuable tool for helping solve crimes rather than prevent them.

Most criticism around video surveillance has focused on so-called closed-circuit systems, which are viewable to some eyes only, like authority figures. Putting surveillance tools in the hands of residents can produce a different effect, as it did for me. Everyday people can use Internet-connected cameras to hold one another accountable or to keep an eye out for one another.

Or they can help solve everyday mysteries. Remember that if you leave a surprise in my driveway, my Dropcam will be watching.

(Published 22 February 2015, 17:58 IST)

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