George Orwell’s 1984 is all too real, but as Cherie Howie explains, we only have ourselves to blame.

Pete Smith was driving on the Southern Motorway when he saw something interesting.

He was at the southern suburban edge of our biggest city, where State Highway 1 is flanked by the giant pylons of the National Grid and the tidal waters of Pahurehure Inlet, when it happened.

A year ago, beyond describing what he saw to family and maybe a few friends, that's where the Waiuku sales representative's experience would've ended.

But it didn't.


We all saw it too — across the city, across the country, even across the world.

Over a few feet of concrete that, fortunately, separated Smith from those travelling towards the city, a truck and trailer unit began skidding out of control on Monday afternoon.

After sending up a cloud of smoke that would make any boy racer proud, the truck emerged unscathed, but jack-knifed and blocking all three northbound lanes.

A lucky truckie and two motorists in front carried on, those behind were going nowhere soon.

Smith, who was on his way home to Waiuku, had seen it all. And so had his Gator dash cam.

Of course it had.

In 2017, Big Brother isn't some totalitarian figurehead watching every moment of our dreadful dystopian existence. It's us.

From the sanctity of our homes, to the road in front of us, to the water below our aquatic toys, to our favourite singers on stage and, even, to our kids' (hopefully) slumbering little bodies, we don't want to miss a thing.

Home security cams, dash cams, helmet cams, baby monitor cams, everything-proof GoPros and that palm-sized hunk of metal and hardened plastic so many of us can no longer live without — the smart phone — are all going down in price and up in demand.

Retailers report skyrocketing demand for the technology in the last couple of years.

Online giant PB Tech reports an eye-watering 120 per cent year-on-year growth in home surveillance sales over the past three years.

So when Smith's son emailed the Herald to say they had footage of the jack-knifed truck twisting to a halt on the Southern Motorway, surprise really shouldn't have been our first response.

Less than a week earlier another motorist sent the Herald shocking video of a stretcher and unoccupied body bag rolling out of a turning hearse at a major suburban Auckland intersection — a Benny Hill-esque moment that was promptly hoovered up by overseas media.

Between them the two videos have been seen more than 400,000 times across this publication's website and social media channels alone.

Footage of crashes and near misses on our roads frequently spark news stories — an entire TV show hosted by comedian Urzila Carlson was nourished by dash cam
videos — and community pages on Facebook are chock-full of screen grabs from home security camera footage of strangers approaching properties, bad news for those who may be innocently seeking to share their religious views or products.

Not so long ago we saw much less of the unexpected mischief, mishaps, follies and fun that are inevitable on a planet teeming with 7.6 billion busy inhabitants, many more animals and countless modes of getting around and keeping ourselves entertained.

And if we did, it was more often than not low-quality and not so new.

Perhaps the most famous amateur video in history, Dallas dressmaker Abraham Zapruder's ghastly 8mm footage of the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy, wasn't seen by a mass audience until it aired on an American current affairs show in 1975 — 12 years after Kennedy's death.

Today, the president's demise would probably be livestreamed.

Private surveillance sales soar

This brave new world, brought to you in living colour and high definition, is no surprise to those in the business of supplying the ever-improving technology to voracious consumers.

PB Technology marketing and e-commerce manager Richard Elstob says as well as soaring home surveillance sales, the company is also seeing annual increases of around 90 per cent for GoPros.

There's less demand for dash cams, but annual growth has hovered around 30 to 40 per cent for the past five years.

"They're getting cheaper and easier to install, and anyone can put them together and sync them with their phone," says Elstob.

The professionals aren't quite so convinced DIY is such a good idea, but they can't disagree that more people want to switch on.

All Round Security director Philip Walsh says his CCTV sales are up 40 per cent on last year. And his customers aren't just the wealthy.

"Two or three years ago it was only on the Paritai Drives [wealthy areas]. Now your average house on your average street is quite happy to put in a home surveillance system that costs $2000 or $3000."

Faster internet and better technology also means a cheaper product, as smartphones could sync to systems, allowing residents could check alarm activations themselves, rather than paying for monitoring.

"That saves $30 a month."

'You think there's so much happening. There's not'

Not all decisions are so sensible.

Security or safety fears are behind all home surveillance decisions. It's a 'neighbours at war' situation for some, but others are motivated by crime — often despite not experiencing it themselves.

Social media is carrying news of break-ins and prowlers much further than word of mouth could previously, Walsh says.

"[Before social media] if your neighbour's been broken into, you'd know and the five neighbours around you might know. Now, within an hour, 500 people could know.

"You think there's so much happening. There's not."

Fortress Security director Steve Roberts says where he lives in Flat Bush almost every home has cameras.

"It's on people's wish lists at the moment."

His advice is to get number plate recognition cameras:"They are the ones the police love", as burglars often cover their faces, making ordinary cameras useless.

He says advice about design and systems from an expert helps avoid mistakes, including around ongoing security, given the cameras can be hacked.

Updates should always be installed and default user names and passwords changed.

There have been incidents overseas of hacked security camera footage from inside homes - including footage of sleeping children - being intercepted and broadcast live on the internet.

Cameras "useful tool": Police

Still, the cameras can also be a force for good.

In February a man was arrested and charged with the abduction and attack of a woman grabbed off the street in Eden Terrace — part of which was captured on a home surveillance camera.

But police also sounded a warning over the use of cameras.

They don't have figures, but the National Crime Prevention manager, Superintendent Eric Tibbott, says anecdotally more footage is being recorded and published.

Home surveillance can be a useful tool for crime prevention and community safety, but must not be used unlawfully, unfairly or be unreasonably intrusive, he says.

Advice on using the cameras is available on the Privacy Commissioner's website and covers things such as letting neighbours know when setting up cameras.

For those recording on the road, safety must come first, Tibbott says.

The road should still have their full attention and, for cyclists, cameras should be fitted in a way that won't cause injury in a crash.

Whether footage can be used as evidence depends on the legality of the recording, he says.

Care also needs to be taken when posting surveillance footage on social media.

"We are aware that more members of the public are turning to these channels to help identify offenders, solve crimes and gain information ... although social media can be a powerful tool for gaining information or potentially identifying offenders, it is important that all information on crime and suspicious activity is reported to police.

"This ensures inquiries are undertaken to make sure information is verified, and that potential offenders are held accountable where possible."

Posts on offenders can jeopardise criminal investigations and any subsequent court process that may take place, Tibbott says.

"In some instances apparent unsafe or unlawful behaviour may have underlying contributing factors that provide a different perspective on the incident and which unfairly portray the perceived actions of [those] recorded."

Don't forget to live

Then there's that little thing called life - it's supposed to be lived - not acted, not recorded.

But concerts are being watched through 13cm wide screens and adventure sports enjoyed with one eye on the GoPro.

Of course, social media is to blame.

Our reptilian brain tells us safety comes in numbers, so it feels good if people "like" our videos of us doing cool stuff.

Driver Cam co-owner Alex Maslov sits in his car with his product. Photo / Greg Bowker
Driver Cam co-owner Alex Maslov sits in his car with his product. Photo / Greg Bowker

Driver Cam co-owner director Alex Maslov's seen it.

As well as selling more and more dash cams since starting the online business with his brother two years ago, the 30-year-old has a pretty good handle on why people want to buy them.

A good chunk are people who've had a crash and discovered other people aren't honest.

Then there are the tradies who want to protect their tools and the parents who want to keep an eye on their kids.

But there are also the "life-loggers", he says. If something interesting happens, they don't want to miss it.

"In the media, they get bombarded with all these sort of videos and photos. People more and more want to be part of it. They say to us 'I see a lot of interesting things'."

He's seen it himself at concerts — people lost in a sea of camera phones recording the moment, rather than living the moment.

"Instead of enjoying the music they start recording. People have this urge to be recording stuff. They see people putting things up [on social media] and they want to as well."

So we might have a good record of what we've done, but does it really matter?

What's more important — the memories in your hard drive, or the ones in your heart?

University of Auckland psychology department associate professor Quentin Atkinson said all this filming could be seen as a high fidelity form of record-keeping.

And record-keeping ain't new, it's what allowed us to live in large societies, where we could keep track of who owed what to whom and why.

It's not all bad, he says.

"There's potentially positives in this technology, in our ability to co-ordinate and co-operate in large scales.

But it can be some bad.

"People can become lost in the kind of thrill of broadcasting the information and miss the moment itself."

And the less fluffy, happy stuff - like that dodgy-looking stranger screen grab posted on your community Facebook page - isn't too flash for us either.

We're biased to focus on threatening information, but we also evolved to live in small communities of 100 people, Atkinson says.

Most of us now live in much bigger communities and hear about many bad things.

That can over-stimulate our security consciousness to devote more attention to things we wouldn't have previously known to worry about, he says.

And who has time for that?

Not Smith, a busy dad who commutes 120km a day on top of his sales rep duties.

But it's hard to avoid all the life — good and bad — going on around you when you live in the city. And if anything interesting happens in front of him again, his Gator will be switched on to capture it.

It could be any moment now.

Two cop cars whizz past, sirens blaring, capturing Smith's attention for a moment as he talks to the Herald on his hands-free mobile.

"There's always something happening."