Internet Eyes, which launched this week, enables Britons to fight crime for cash rewards by watching live streamed CCTV footage from shops and businesses on their own computers. While civil libertarians see this as further evidence of Britain's 'Big Brother' surveillance society, founder Tony Morgan says Internet Eyes is a kind of citizens' brigade.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Crime is rising, according to the British Centre for Retail Research, and it's costing the U.K. economy almost five billion pounds a year. Tony Morgan has one solution. He's the founder of Internet Eyes, which went live this week in the U.K. It enables any resident of the European Union to catch crooks from the comfort of their couch. And if they do, they'll be rewarded in cash, up to a thousand pounds, in fact. Internet Eyes sees itself as a kind of citizens anti-crime brigade, but civil liberties campaigners see it as more evidence that Britain's "Big Brother" surveillance society is stronger than ever. Here's how it works: If you own a computer and subscribe to the service you watch four simultaneous streams of closed circuit footage from shops and businesses, streamed live by Internet Eyes. If you see something suspicious you hit an alert button on your keyboard. A text message is sent to the shopkeeper to alert them to the incident.
TONY MORGAN: He can then check out the aisle where that camera is watching and just see what's going on. This will act as a deterrent because if you steal, you — you're going to know that even if you distract the security guard or the shopkeeper's attention, somebody is still watching.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you worried about people flooding the system with false alerts?
TONY MORGAN: No, because when the shopkeeper has dealt with the problem that he has, then he goes back to his screen and he clears it. It also asks him for three reward points, if it was a crime, one reward point if it could have been a crime and he could see what the person was alerting him to. But then if there are no reward points, and that happens five times on the trot, then the person will get a caution and just asked to be more vigilant in their monitoring. And if they do it another three times without anybody being seen or caught, then they'll be struck off.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What's the Internet Eyes business model? I know you get subscriptions. Is this enough to support Internet Eyes? Are the businesses paying you as well?
TONY MORGAN: Yes. After January the 4th the stores that we have and other stores will pay 75 pounds per month, which is, I suppose you could say, a nice bag of sweets, maybe 2.60 a day. So we feel it's very inexpensive, considering the amount of shoplifting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Internet Eyes went live at 10 a.m. GMT on October 4th. How many subscribers have you got so far?
TONY MORGAN: Well, we're looking to have 3,000 by the end of the month to monitor 120 cameras. That is our aim. We will reach that by probably the 20th, 21st of the month.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, your assumption is that people will pay for the privilege of being good citizens, or are you appealing to the voyeur in all of us, or both?
TONY MORGAN: There's no voyeuristic pleasures out of Internet Eyes. If you want voyeuristic pleasures, you can go onto hundreds of webcams and you can stay on the same webcam all day long. You can go into Times Square and watch it all day. You can go into Piccadilly Circus, watch it all day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: These are available to the public?
TONY MORGAN: Oh yeah, hundreds of them. So if you want voyeuristic pleasures, go to those. Internet Eyes is just solely for reducing the amount of shoplifting that happens in our shops and, hopefully, to reduce prices.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the subscribers can't pick which stores they're looking at, right? I mean, you can't simply sign up to look at Marks & Spencer's because your wife works there.
TONY MORGAN: No. You can't demand any shop. It's all completely random. You won't be given any shops in your post code area.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Internet Eyes has been accused of encouraging private citizens to engage in a kind of culture of snooping. There's a group called Big Brother Watch that called it "a worrying development akin to pimping out closed circuit TV images to amateur bounty hunters."
TONY MORGAN: Well, everybody's entitled to their opinion, but there are alot of people in this country who are frightened to say anything about crime. I mean, there are some strange characters about. And there are some elderly people — this particular lady that I'm thinking of is quite elderly, and she would no way dare to say anything to somebody that was shoplifting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, I would assume you would say something to an employee in the shop and not confront the person directly.
TONY MORGAN: If you did that, and then the employee went over to the person you'd be in trouble.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Because?
TONY MORGAN: Well, I mean, the aggression in some people is awful. You — you wouldn't dare to go up to a security guard and say, excuse me, that gentleman over there has just pinched a bottle of whiskey, because the security guard has to see him do it to be able to arrest him, or have some evidence. And the person would know that you told on him, and you could be the one in trouble.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you worry that some people might see this as a kind of reality spy game?
TONY MORGAN: I'm sure some people will. You're entitled to your own opinion. All I can go by is the response I've had from all over the world. We got hundreds of emails saying "at last”, because people are fed up of people getting something for nothing all the time and everybody footing the bill.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tony, thank you very much.
TONY MORGAN: Absolute pleasure, thank you for your time.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tony Morgan is the founder and managing director of Internet Eyes.