Tech by VICE

This Guy's App Could Turn Our Old iPhones into Thousands and Thousands of Surveillance Cameras

Perch Live makes it easier than ever to catch people acting sketchy, if you're into that sort of thing.

by Mike Pearl
May 18 2016, 9:35pm

Perch Live screengrab courtesy of Rob Banagale

Back in the dial-up days of the neolithic internet, staring at choppy, blurry webcam footage of people living their average, boring lives was an exciting and transgressive facet of online life. App developer Rob Banagale was a fan. "In the 1990s the earliest webcams were some of the coolest things about the internet," he says.

His new app, Perch Live is definitely another app for people who love staring at 24/7 webcams. But Banagale says Perch Live comes with a "twist": It's meant to place those sorts of all-day-every-day webcams pretty much everywhere on Earth.

This pursuit of greater surveillance is a kind of personal crusade for Banagale, who says his sister was the victim of a sexual assault while walking on a college campus. Unfortunately it appears that no one will ever be prosecuted because surveillance cameras operated by the college itself were obstructed by a construction sign. Ubiquitous Perch Live cameras, Banagle hopes, will document many such crimes in the future. "I think everybody, except for the person who did that wishes that there was video of this," he says.

Currently, Banagale says this kind of surveillance isn't everywhere because, "it's kind of a pain to set up a webcam." Sure, places with cuteness appeal like cat shelters and world famous locales like Times Square have webcams. But the average person generally won't go to the trouble of buying an external webcam and figuring out how to configure it, just so they can aim it at, say, the nearest suburban street corner.

Perch Live, he explains, turns smartphones and tablets into "security cameras" that will be publicly accessible. Not the devices most Americans carry in their pockets, but "any old phones they may have lying around." He envisions the owners of old forgotten gadgets—in other words, wasteful hyper-consumers like you and me—streaming hi-definition video of whatever we want, 24 hours a day.

Perhaps most importantly, Banagale adds, "users—anyone, really—can create clips from the historical video, and share them on social media, or anywhere else."

It really is easy. Maybe too easy. I downloaded the app while I was in the bathroom, and the process of setting up my own Perch Live "lens" took me about a minute. It came as a surprise that I was already broadcasting the corner of a toilet stall, and I quickly shut my lens down.

If such live feeds manage to attract viewers with the ability to quickly extract and share clips, what should they be looking for? Banagale says as creator of the platform, he has no prescription for its use. "It's really kind of up to the person who's putting the lens up. Perch Live doesn't have an agenda per se," he says.

During the Perch Live beta phase, much of what users found interesting was footage of apparent drug use. Two of the featured clips at the moment are of a gas station parking lot in Oakland, California. In one clip, a woman sits in the passenger seat of a car with a plate, and appears to make tidy lines of something before snorting them. In another video taken in that same spot, a guy appears to inject himself in the crotch with a syringe.

Periscope, an app designed for momentary snippets of live video, can give viewers a similar thrill. Exhibitionistic periscopers sometimes snort cocaine on camera to the delight of drug voyeurs, but there's a clear difference: Periscopers generally want—nay, demand—to be watched. People on Perch Live most likely do not.

But they're in public. "This service only works if it complies with privacy laws that exist already," says Banagale. Anything pointed into spaces that invade privacy, he says are "against terms of service." Instead, his intent is for users to aim their old smartphones at "public spaces where there is no expectation of privacy."

According to Matt Cagle, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, Perch Live raises some "important questions," but, the law seems to be on the side of the Oakland user who posted the gas station footage. "Taking video in public spaces is generally protected by the First Amendment," Cagle told VICE in an email.

Outside of California's laws on surveillance camera's there's significant legal variation. New York's is similar, although it adds a definition of a place where one can reasonably expect privacy: whenever and wherever it seems safe to "fully disrobe." Meanwhile, all hidden cameras are effectively illegal in New Hampshire, Delaware, Georgia, Utah, Alabama, Michigan and South Dakota according to the legal textbookElectronic Media Law and Regulation by Kenneth C. Creech.

But camera positioning aside, the existence of the footage presents potential problems according to Cagle of the ACLU. "We're concerned that police may take advantage of apps like this one to expand their surveillance capabilities without community oversight," he told me. In 2010, Google Street View photos helped law enforcement arrest a group of men in Brooklyn for drug dealing, according to The New York Post.

"People have a right to control whether and how surveillance is used in their communities. Unchecked surveillance risks creating more problems than it solves, and invites high-tech racial profiling," Cagle added.

Banagale is more sanguine about potential applications for race relations. "[Perch Live] can catch really important moments in our society—things that we really want to kind of reflect on," he claims.

In addition to the footage of apparent drug use on his site, he points to situations in which "video tells a story that's either in conflict with, or provides greater context around, some kind of law enforcement procedure." Perch Live hasn't yet been the center of any police brutality controversies, but Banagale hopes it can be a tool when "video is the only proof that people can rely on."

But fighting crime isn't Banagle's only stated aim. He says he wants life on Earth to be recorded, creating what he calls, "an interesting documentary of who we are as a species."

He also points out that the single most heavily viewed feed during Perch Live's beta phase was his own mother's wildly popular puppy cam. But he's cool with that. "People like what they like," Banagle says.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.