Electronic Frontier Foundation Launches VR Experience To Teach Surveillance Awareness

Learn to spot various forms of public surveillance technology in this 10-minute interactive VR experience.

San Francisco’s Electronic Frontier Foundation (EEF) released their new educational VR experience, Spot the Surveillance, on November 5th aimed at helping citizens increase their awareness of police and government surveillance equipment on the street.

“We are living in an age of surveillance, where hard-to-spot cameras capture our faces and our license plates, drones in the sky videotape our streets, and police carry mobile biometric devices to scan people’s fingerprints,” said EFF Senior Investigative Researcher Dave Maass, according to the company’s press release.

“Spot the Surveillance” uses 360-degree VR to immerse the user into a setting on a San Fransico street as a young character trying to identify multiple forms of surveillance technology around you. In about 10 minutes, the user is able to self-train to understand these police enforcement techniques and be more aware of them in their surroundings in reality.

EEF has been researching methods of police street monitoring and surveillance for years, and this experience draws on their data. Users will be attempting to identify various technologies including a drone, a mobile biometric device, a body-worn camera, automated license plate readers, and pan-tilt-zoom cameras. The Street-Level Surveillance project examines how police in the area use these technologies and the different ways that they have been abusing them to spy on the public, according to the release.

Maass explains that the tool can “help people recognize these spying technologies around them and understand what their capabilities are.”

Laura Schatzkin is the web developer in charge of the code for the project. She wanted to emphasize that the experience is partially meant as a way to explore “how emerging online technologies can help bring about awareness and change.” The team chose to tackle this particular issue within the public interest specifically because it meshed will with virtual reality technologies and Schatzkin feels that this project will make a real difference in allowing users to increase their awareness and sensibilities in dealing with this kind of abuse of police power.

“The issue of ubiquitous police surveillance was a perfect match for virtual reality. We hope that after being immersed in this digital experience users will acquire a new perspective on privacy that will stay with them when they remove the headset and go out into the real world,” Schatzkin said.

This project has some big name backers; it was supported throughout its development by XRStudio, which is the residency program at Mozilla Firefox, and is funded through the 2018 Journalism 360 Challenge grant. Journalism 360 boasts sponsors such as the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Google News Initiative, and the Online News Association. It is a global community of journalists and storytellers working to increase the access, use and innovation of immersive platforms in journalism.

The current version of “Spot the Surveillance” experience itself can be found here (available in mobile VR, as well as standard desktop). It is available to the public for testing purposes and as part of the Aaron Swartz Day and International Hackathon activities, which honors Swartz who committed suicide in 2013 facing federal charges for downloading scientific journals that same year. EEF also conducted live demonstrations of this project at the Internet Archive in San Francisco on November 10th and 11th.

Images Courtesy of the Electronic Frontier Foundation

About the Scout

Becca Loux

Becca is a reporter with VRScout and an avid fan of VR technology, literature, art and sunshine--something she appreciates more than ever now living in Wales. She is studying data journalism and digital visualization techniques and is building a career in unbiased, direct journalism.

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