Illustrations by Nick Vokey

A half-dozen puppies pounce, leap and roll, chasing each other around an indoor playroom. A young man in a gray beanie gets digitally fingerprinted by a Boston cop. A Japanese school marching band practices its routine, forming straight lines that break and twist into different formations, then packs up and empties the gymnasium.

A scroll through the site Opentopia offers hundreds of such views from publicly available cameras streaming online — more than 820 in the U.S. alone — silently gazing over public parks, into waiting rooms, on front porches. This antidote to reality television encourages patience and discovery: the subtle thrill of live surveillance footage, of watching while being unseen, brings the power of spying to any viewer with a broadband connection and time on their hands.

Webcam aggregation sites touch on the paradox of data availability — we choose to share much of our lives publicly but often feel uneasy at the thought of being watched. The reality is that so much of what we do, especially when viewed through the stationary lens of a webcam, is mundane. In fact, the sheer ordinariness of our day-to-day routines can be seen as protection, a way to inoculate against privacy invasion by turning the Big Brother eye on yourself.

Unlike sites that thrive on user-contributed content or taste-tailored recommendations, Opentopia operates on Web 1.0 principles: The site aggregates streaming webcams in a single place, presented without comment. Trending cameras pop up on the homepage and recent keywords are listed on the search tab, but other than that, the site is open for unguided exploration. It rewards rummaging.

Opentopia’s algorithms automatically aggregate all its cameras from publicly available live video streaming feeds, although the webcam owners may not know their feeds are included. Flemming Funch, who created the basic format of the site in a single weekend, followed a whim of listing and displaying feeds from webcams through automated searches, finding cameras that, as he says, were perhaps not meant to be public.

"Part of the intrigue is that we're never totally sure. Most of the time you're not really snooping on anybody who doesn't want to be looked at, but you don't know," Funch says. "You don't really know what kind of strange and mysterious things might show up."

Born in Denmark and now living in France after almost two decades in California, Funch, fifty-four, strikes a roguish figure, with a thin face and dark goatee. His curiosity and openness can make him seem like a gold prospector in the Wild West of the open Internet: sifting through search engines and laying out whatever is publicly available for all to see, not concerning himself much with what happens on the feeds, so long as they are available to watch. The name itself, a portmanteau of "open" and "cornucopia," implies the abundance of this kind of benign surveillance.

When it launched in 2005, the site's novelty appeal, coupled with then-current hype about streaming technology and related security concerns, brought heavy traffic to Opentopia, with hundreds of thousands of hits in its first few days. After the initial burst of interest, traffic has settled down to around 5,000 visits to the site per day. In the near-decade that Opentopia has been active, only a handful of owners have asked to have their camera removed, and Funch has obliged. In fact, Funch says more often people want to be added to the site. The cameras range from capturing the banal to the bizarre. A Russian hospital used to have a streaming camera in an operating room, where viewers could watch medical procedures in process. But one of the most popular cameras was a simple park bench in Poland. Streams like that satisfy the people-watching instinct we humans have, and encourage social interaction between viewers.

"They love that Internet bench," Funch says, comparing it to people in the same room watching television, conversation naturally springing from their shared entertainment. "They would hang out in the chat room on the Internet bench as if they were there and just chat with each other."

Some of the feeds on Opentopia are the usual cutesy Internet suspects, like the camera in the cat room of DOGSASPEN, an animal shelter in Colorado, which offers a kind of scavenger hunt to find the sly creatures. Seth Sachson, forty-four, installed cameras in his Aspen animal shelter and kennel in 2006 as a way to engage both current and potential pet owners. Funch says this kind of camera appeals to most everyone in part because there's no anxiety about spying on someone who wants privacy — they're watching puppies and kittens just being themselves.

"Anybody with a heart can watch that and feel good about it," Funch says.

Sachson says the cameras were so successful that now he has to time out the viewers — after four or five minutes of inactivity on the page, the feed stops streaming. He knows the cameras are for the people watching them, not for the cats and dogs in front of them.

"The animals could care less whether they're on camera or not,” Sachson says.

*   *   *

Then again, some people could care less whether they’re on camera or not. As we start living more of our lives online, do our "real" lives become less compelling to watch?

Take the camera of Susan Dennis, one of Opentopia's most popular feeds. Her living room is a close runner-up for most frequently viewed, with more than 128,000 views since the site has been counting and nearly 800 comments on her page. (A stationary landscape of Mt. Fuji reigns in the site's top spot.) According to Funch, Dennis’ camera is one of the more contentious ones on the site because people assume that if it's in her living room, it's snooping or invading her privacy. But she welcomes the idea of cameras in her home and Funch thinks having a normal person on camera creates a positive space for connection.

Snippets of Susan Dennis's webcam feed from four different time periods. (Cut and edited by Nellie Kluz)

"Even when there's nothing going on, you're sharing something that you don't normally do," he says. "Most of us have a problem with intimacy. We invite people into our close space — our family or close friends — but not strangers, so there's something sort of special about getting a peek into someone's more private space."

Most days find Dennis, sixty-five, on her couch knitting, watching baseball and keeping in touch with friends online. Living alone means her daily routine doesn't deviate much; if it does, she writes about it on her blog. Every morning she posts a picture of her knitting basket, and at the end of the month she snaps a photo of the "Bear Chair" piled high with dozens of the stuffed animals she knits for charity. The appeal of her feed emanates in part from her regular routine; she can function as a virtual companion, slippered feet propped up on the ottoman that holds her knitting tools, the construction of her teddy bears marking the passage of time. Dennis, who has had webcams for more than a decade, doesn’t even notice the cameras anymore.

“I don't care who sees me,” she says. “Obviously if I did, I'd take it down. I don't have anything to hide. It certainly beats having people over. I don't have to make hors d'oeuvres; I don't have to make conversation.”

Dennis, who is retired, spent decades working in computers and web design. She first set up a webcam to see how the back end of online streaming cameras worked, testing it with her mother, who was living in South Carolina. When she discovered her feed on Opentopia, she combed through the pages of comments about her and her life.

Touched by users’ interest, Dennis decided to let them know who she was and answered questions they had — she felt guilty reading their thoughts without responding, mostly because she said it felt invasive, kind of like spying.

Though most Opentopia viewers are innocuous, Dennis has had her share of what she calls “heavy breathers” — men (and they are always men) who call to tell her they are watching her, describe what she’s wearing, what she’s doing. They come and go in spurts, calling or emailing several days in a row, and then months go by without unsettling admirers contacting her. They don’t bother her as much as annoy her.

“My creepy meter must have broken years ago,” she says. “They're not looking for chit-chat conversation. I think they're trying to prove something, but I'm not sure what it is.”

When her mother died in 2005, Dennis began using webcams to stay in touch with her brother, Bill Schubert, sixty, who runs a computer repair shop outside Austin, Texas. He installed webcams in the shop in 2010 and set up a monitor streaming Dennis's camera with a sign that says, “Wave to my sister!” He says having her on the monitor all day is a comfort, an informal way for these siblings to stay in each other's lives.

"It's kind of like she's sitting here and part of the business. We say hello to her every now and then," Schubert says. Sometimes, because of technical glitches, the feed stops and Dennis's monitor goes blank. "When her camera goes down, I miss looking up there and seeing her."

*   *   *

Buffalo Chips sits just off Florida’s I-41, a mile and a half north of the Naples dog-racing track. Offering sixty-cent wings on Mondays and a fish fry on Fridays, this neighborhood bar and restaurant attracts everyone from state politicians passing through on a glad-handing circuit to German tourists looking for local flavor.

Snippets of Buffalo Chips's webcam feed from four different time periods. (Cut and edited by Nellie Kluz)

A Buffalo native, manager Chip Greenwood — whose father Al, the Wing King of Florida, started the business in 1982 — says the upscale dive has had publicly streaming cameras for about fifteen years. Initially, the technology only allowed for still pictures taken at regular intervals so it acted like a restaurant photo booth, taking snapshots of the patrons and employees.

"It was kind of a cute little thing, getting everyone together in front of the camera so they could see us," Greenwood says.

Now the cameras stream the steady flow of folks on the restaurant's patio, settled in chairs with mugs of beer along a narrow bar top or parked at picnic tables with trays of ribs and wings. Watching the Buffalo Chips feed doesn’t feel much different than people-watching from any restaurant's back corner table, but it has a one-way mirror effect that heightens the drama of the everyday: Who is that person waiting for? A friend? A business partner? A date? Viewers get wrapped up in the nuances of each patron's behavior. Funch sees it as freeing, because people can watch without being self-conscious about it.

"It gives you the license to care about somebody else that you really don't know," Funch says. "It makes you feel some kind of communion with other people in a way that would be hard to create otherwise."

The feed appeals to out-of-towners, mostly. European tourists who make their way to Bonita Springs tell their friends back home about the restaurant and ask them to watch the "Buffalo Cam," so they can wave to them from an ocean away.

Greenwood says occasionally they have goofballs calling from as far away as Australia and making Bart Simpson-type calls, getting the bartender on the phone to ask about the guy in the hat and giggling when the bartender hands him the phone. When the prank calls get out of hand, Greenwood puts some tape over the camera lens for a few days, until they die down. Greenwood doesn't worry too much about who watches it, or why.

"We're not doing anything wrong here, so it doesn't matter," he says. "Just selling chicken wings and sodas."

Whether his employees like it doesn't really matter to Greenwood; he sees surveillance as just a part of the deal.

"With the Internet now, everything's out in the open any way," he says. "Someone's going to get you on camera regardless."

*   *   *

Hannah McBride is a writer born and raised in Kansas City. A former lackey of Click and Clack and erstwhile English teacher in Southeast Asia, she edits for Nowhere magazine. She also tumblestweets and whistles on occasion.

Nellie Kluz is a filmmaker based in New York.

Nick Vokey is an art director, designer, and illustrator based in Cambridge Massachusetts.

Other stories from The Spies Among Us

Attack of the Superhackers

A group of ex-soldiers cracks safes, picks locks and steals data — all in the name of corporate security.

Journeys of a Psychic Army Spy

Trained by the U.S. military in the art of mentalist warfare, a clandestine intelligence agent travels the world and unlocks state secrets, all without leaving his desk chair.

Abe Lincoln’s Loveliest Spy

Amid the bloodiest throes of the Civil War, a beautiful actress in search of adventure donned disguises, dodged death, and slipped secretly behind Confederate lines.

Tales of Espionage

From reading diaries to eavesdropping on neighbors, spying on drug dealers to deciphering spooks, four writers revel in the treachery and titillation of espionage.
Published with Marquee