Webcams: At the intersection of Big Brother and cybersex

Once upon a time, I worked with a creepy-yet-cool tech-savvy guy named Victor. Every day around 3 p.m. he would load up a web-viewing program and watch through the front window of his home as his daughter got off the bus, walked to the door, and came inside the house.

On the one hand, I was impressed by Victor's clear concern for his daughter and obvious computer skills. On the other hand, I had to acknowledge that spying on his neighborhood was a little freakish. Ironically, this feeling grew stronger when I became addicted to the "Victor's Neighborhood Show," particularly the "Somebody's working on his roof" subplot and the "Victor's neighbor seems to be spending a lot of time entertaining strangers" twist.

I'm not opposed to the idea of using high-tech tools to watch out for one's possessions or family; in fact, one of my favorite Christmas presents ever was a spy camera that looked like a Zippo lighter. While I don't smoke anymore, I still yank it out from time to time, just to take cool, low-resolution shots of total strangers while reveling in the whole "behind enemy lines in East Berlin" vibe.

Perhaps the real issue is price. Right now, a good webcam costs around $100 and it's possible to buy a reasonably decent one for much less. Add in some fairly simple software and anybody can start spying on family, friends, neighbors, or anyone else. In fact, for a little more, systems like Logitech's WiLife make it easy to transform one's home into an Orwellian fever dream.

On the other end, sites like uStream.tv are free and make it possible to turn an enemy's most personal moments into the latest Web sitcom. As webcams make it possible for anyone with a couple of hundred dollars to become a diabolical cross between Bob Saget and Big Brother, it seems like the very concept of privacy has become laughable!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He's getting a full-body video static tattoo. Just in case.

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