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August 29, 2013

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If you knew your boss was watching, would you be on your best behavior?

Our basic understanding of human behavior suggests you would. And now a team of researchers definitively confirms this to be the case — at least for employees in low paying restaurant jobs.

The researchers installed video cameras and wanted to understand whether surveillance would lead to a drop in employee thefts. They found that employees who knew they were being watched didn’t steal as much and also upped overall on the job performance. Revenue jumped, the employers were delighted and the academics published a novel research paper.

So what does this mean for the rest of us? Do we need more cameras in public places to nudge the public into better behavior? Police departments have already deployed millions of cameras worldwide, as have private businesses seeking to deter crime. The amount of video footage available to identify the Boston Marathon bombers was astounding. Civil liberties advocates point to dubious crime fighting results and bewail the encroachment of a surveillance society, but most of us don’t pay attention to the cameras until they catch us rolling through a red light.

Clearly it was critical for the retail employees to know they were being watched so that they would feel accountable for their performance. But what about the downside of always being publicly accountable for what we say and do?

Whether to a deity, basic morality or self-discipline, we should all feel some sense of conscience about the decisions we make, but we all need some private space to be silly, to act out, or to try something that fails. Many of those individual quirks or bursts of creativity would vanish if we knew they were being recorded. Would sort of dull world would we live in if we all walked around on our best behavior? What sort of genius or creativity would be lost?

To some degree, we already have a system of 100% surveillance for what we do online. Our searches are logged and used to improve future searches, the web sites we visit are tracked and our tweets are stored at the Library of Congress. Humans don’t peruse this data, but computers sift through it to understand how ecommerce is performing and to better target ads.

Some web surfers are uneasy and clear cookies or use privacy software, but most of us don’t have the technical chops to use technical tools like Tor for anonymous web browsing and won’t take the time to deal with encrypted email.

And why should we? It just is machines and algorithms “looking” at the data rather than humans. Machines don’t chuckle at our flaws or judge us for our faults. Computers are getting smarter, but they lack the ability to hold us accountable.

We are the ones in charge. So far.


Jules Polonetsky is Executive Director of the Future of Privacy Forum a Washington based think tank focused on advancing responsible data practices. On Sep 10, FPF will host many of the country’s leading privacy academics to discuss Privacy and Big Data: Making Ends Meet.

Photo Credit Flickr: Jonathan McIntosh

Featured on:Big Ideas & Innovation

Posted by:Jules Polonetsky

via Every Step You Take, Every Move You Make | LinkedIn.


Born in 1964, business owner, from Woodbridge, VA, owns ExcitingAds! Inc. ( and blog ( He was born in Mirpurkhas, Sind, Pakistan. His elementary school was ST. Michael's Convent High School, Mirpurkhas, Sind, Pakistan. Graduated high school from ST. Bonaventure's Convent High School, Hyderabad, Sind, Pakistan. His pre-med college was S. A. L. Govt. College, Mirpurkas, Sind, Pakistan. Graduated from Liaquat University of Medical and Health Sciences, Jamshoro, Sind, Pakistan in 1990. Earned equivalency certification from Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates, Philadelphia, PA in 1994.

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