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An astonishing number of restaurants and pubs have installed webcams to observe patrons and beam their images across the internet without their knowledge, The Register has accidentally discovered.

Occasionally, one stumbles onto a story quite by chance. This is just such a case, so bear with us through a bit of background.

Culinary wasteland

Anyone familiar with Washington, DC knows that the dining scene is a few pegs below boarding schools and penal institutions. Thus a person trapped here for professional reasons is forever on the lookout for a previously-unknown restaurant, hoping to be fed decent victuals without being robbed - a rare experience. From the cheapest noodle dives to the poshest temples of haute cuisine, the vast majority of DC food is a shameless rip-off.

Still, hope springs eternal. On a recent stroll along a single block of decrepit buildings and clip joints called, with hopeful exaggeration, Chinatown, we happened upon a tiny barbecue outfit called Capital Q on H St, around Seventh. After initially dismissing with scorn the possibility of encountering decent Q in the reclaimed swamp that is our nation's capital, we observed through the small resto's very big window five - count 'em five - of DC's finest and fattest happily tucking in to brisket and ribs.

Now, everyone knows that a dense collection of fat cops is a reliable indicator of many things, among the nicer of which are restaurants offering good value for money. We declined to enter the premises because we are not particularly pleased to be surrounded by policemen, but as soon as we got home, we Googled on Capital Q to see the menu. We thought we might dine there that night.

Arriving at the web site, we were disappointed to learn that it closes early. It's primarily a luncheon joint. But more surprising were the live webcam images streamed to the home page, revealing the antics of patrons for all on the internet to enjoy in real time. A moment spent picturing ourself observed on camera eating with our hands, with barbecue sauce smeared over our face, persuaded us to become takeaway patrons one day soon.

But surely this webcam business was an anomaly, we thought.

A nose for news

Our prejudices notwithstanding, we decided to do some easy, virtual legwork. To our surprise, a search via Google turned up thousands of restaurants that have instituted this peculiar gimmick. One site offers a handy directory of live cam feeds from restaurants, along with numerous other categories to satisfy one's voyeuristic pleasures.

Googling for pubs led us to a similar cornucopia of live webcam feeds, along with a convenient directory of them.

Outfits shooting for a more bourgeois image, such as the Miller Howe Hotel and Restaurant in Cumbria, tend to show only exterior views of bucolic scenes. Many others zoom in on their patrons, regardless of how they might be behaving or what they might be wearing. The webcams of beach-front restos in tropical locales offer superior opportunities for perving, naturally.

We did find an amusing nod to patron privacy on the webcam page of the Basement Bar and Restaurant in Broughton Street, Edinburgh: "The camera looks down onto the bar, from the bar side of the pub, thus avoiding the grizzlier of the regulars, who seldom venture to this side," the webmaster explains.

What's up with that?

Our eyes thus opened, we returned to Capital Q in person to see if there was a sign warning patrons that their luncheon activities are beamed live to the Net. There wasn't one. (The brisket did look tempting, though - juicy and delightfully fat.)

Via e-mail, we asked Capital Q spokesman Nick how his customers have reacted to the webcam.

"We installed [it] over six years ago," Nick told us. "The main reason was so that people could check the place out and get a feel for it. Our regulars use it frequently to see if the line is long or how busy it is. No one has ever complained about privacy issues. You would kinda have to know the person you were looking at."

We asked if there ought to be a sign in the dining room warning patrons about the webcam, or if doing so could affect trade.

"No, I don't think we should post a sign, nor do I think it would matter business-wise," he said. "There are cameras everywhere you go nowadays. Street corners, offices, etc."

And how do his regular customers like it, we wondered?

"Our customers love it," he went on. "We are about to install some in another restaurant of ours and hope to have a network of restaurants put together soon. It's more of an advertising tool, I think. You can run an ad in a magazine, but a quick glimpse gives you an idea of the place. If I'm visiting a city, I can look at some brochure at the front desk, but if I could go and take a peek inside, that would save a lot of wasted time."

And indeed, those are good points. Camera surveillance is ubiquitous and unavoidable these days. And it is handy to see how busy a place is. And yes, one does get a subjective sense of a place that still-photography won't capture. (For example, the Basement Bar in Edinburgh appears, at least through the webcam, to be our sort of joint, and we look forward to giving our liver a proper beat-down there one day soon.)

But we still can't help worrying about two things: first, the ghastly mental picture of being observed eating with our hands and our face smeared with barbecue sauce (or sucking spilt beer out of our shirt, or swatting a young tron's arse with terrible geezer desperation, etc.), and second, that our alibi might be undermined by a tech-savvy significant other who notices that we never did appear where we vehemently claimed to be going, and later claimed vehemently to have been.

A double-edged sword if ever we encountered one. ®

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