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Webcams see all, even Franky

Jan. 8: In the Sahara, the African spurred tortoise lives for about a century. Thanks to modern technology, one named Franky has a shot at immortality.

“He gets about 10,000 viewers a month,” said Donnie Cook, the owner of Lou’s Pet Shop in Grosse Pointe Woods, Michigan, where Franky, an easygoing 17-year-old, spends his days transmitting over the Internet a non-stop tortoise-eye view of the world. “We get people from at least 30 states, plus Italy, France.” A family in California has even sent the store $50 to keep Franky in lettuce.

Why should the National Security Agency have all the fun?

Franky’s fame illustrates the increasing surveillance of nearly everything by private citizens. Thanks to advances in miniaturisation and cheap digital storage, tiny cameras are moving onto houses, people and nature. Everything is being filmed — from nannies and sleeping babies to vandalism-plagued parking lots to fireplaces awaiting Santa Claus.

YouTube gets notice for loading about 100 hours of video a minute. Dropcam, the maker of the camera atop Franky’s shell, uploads more than 1,000 hours of video a minute. That’s up about 500 per cent over last year. Another 1,500 hours or more every minute is not recorded, but is presumably being watched live, according to Dropcam.

Franky, an easygoing 17-year-old tortoise, sauntered down an aisle of Lou’s Pet Shop in Grosse Pointe while broadcasting his movements online via Dropcam.

While the public is increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of government cameras and Internet snoops recording their daily behavior, there does not appear to be much introspection about routinely monitoring people, pets or handymen.

“It’s seductive to say that larger entities will do this, so we should, too, but something happens when everyone focuses this hard on their own passions,” said Evan Selinger, an associate professor of the philosophy of technology at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “Should the contractor like being seen all the time? What happens to the family unit? Sometimes the key to overcoming resentment is being able to forget things.”

People have had cameras aimed at things like garage doors and ocean views for years. But cameras that transmit images over the Internet have become significantly smaller and cheaper in recent years and easier to set up — a natural formula for widespread consumer adoption.

The number of homes in the US with private security cameras increased by about five million last year, to 15 million homes, according to Parks Associates, a research company. A similar increase is expected this year, said Tom Kerber, Parks’s director of research. A Dropcam camera captured what its user believed to be a robbery taking place across the street from his house, according to the company.

People have found uses for the cameras in “monitoring their pets, the nanny or their kids, so much more besides security”, he said. New features like facial recognition should increase the popularity, he said.

On Christmas Eve, Dropcam activations were three times the normal rate, presumably to record presents being opened.

Dropcam’s high-definition video cameras sell for $149 and $199, and they can be monitored on most computing devices.

The company has many competitors, like Axis Communications of Sweden, Pelco in the US and several manufacturers in China. GoPro makes a popular, small camera often worn in sports like skiing. But Dropcam, just four years old, is the largest that stores video online and, like some of its competitors, also offers video storage and editing.

Ambarella, which makes video chips for both Dropcam and GoPro, recently said it was working with Google on cameras for field workers to stream their activities back to headquarters.

 
 
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