Citizen-recorded videos fanned the flames of the Arab Spring into a regional wildfire. From police repression in Tunisia and protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, through the violent final minutes of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s life, amateur cellphone videos spread through the Arab world not only via social media and SMS (short message service), but also on YouTube. From there, the Al Jazeera network beamed them into millions of homes across the Arab world, where television ownership still exceeds Internet access. When the Tunisian and Egyptian governments shut down national Internet and mobile phone networks, satellite dishes kept citizens informed.
Video is ubiquitous – whether on TV, online, or used privately for security and defense. This continuous capture of imagery will continue to be a mixed blessing in 2012. Video technology can force leaders to be just, or curb crime and terrorism, but issues of ethics and civil liberties underlie both uses.
Since 9/11, major US cities have heavily upgraded their surveillance equipment. Emulating the Ring of Steel girding London’s financial district, New York City’s Lower Manhattan Security Initiative includes cameras, license plate scanners, and dangerous-substance detectors. Although the NYPD’s privacy guidelines include deletion of video within 30 days of its recording, the New York Civil Liberties Union has questioned what it considers indiscriminate surveillance, especially of protests.
Video technology also makes our military more efficient and precise, but can carry heavy costs. Live video brought the Osama bin Laden mission to the White House Situation Room. Pilots based in America use drone aircraft to track and kill terrorist leaders, but the Pentagon reports that some pilots suffer from burnout and high stress, both from the monotonous work and the burden of attacking people they have watched for months.
The debate over video’s proper role will continue beyond 2012. As with social media, easy access to cellphone cameras will lead more people to share their lives online – to their occasional regret, as evidence of misbehavior slips out of their control. The trend of political “gotcha" videos, as citizens trail politicians to capture flubs or outbursts, will only accelerate during the presidential campaign.
With cameras in nearly every phone, anyone can share their personal experience – whether funny, tumultuous, or oppressed. But the chance that we can be captured at our worst moment might lead us to stop sharing and start hiding.