TCS Daily

Candid about Cameras, Redux

By Max Borders - May 23, 2005 12:00 AM

Earlier this month I wrote a piece called "Let's Be Candid About Cameras," in which I argued that civil libertarian concerns about municipal cameras are exaggerated and that debates about street cameras should center on efficacy, as well as costs and benefits overall. Many readers took me to task with a number of objections -- and in many cases were right to do so. While I don't believe it is necessary to concede the fundamental point, I do owe my critics and gentle readers some points of clarification, as well as a number of caveats.

Before I do so, however, I would like to offer a couple of different intuitive sketches that relate to cameras. Hopefully this will help those on either side of the debate see where the other is coming from.

Consider these newspaper lead-ins:

"WASHINGTON -- Community leaders and educators offered kind words as they recalled the short life of 9-year-old Donte Manning, who was shot and killed as he played near his home in March."

"MIAMI -- Investigators are searching for a man they said abducted and raped a woman. Police said a 26-year-old woman was abducted at knifepoint from the corner of Northwest 10th Avenue and 74th Street in Miami and was later raped"

When we are treated daily to such serious rights violations by our fellow citizens, surely we can empathize with the sentiment that "something must be done" to protect innocents -- i.e. their rights to life and voluntary sexual congress. Indeed, couldn't the horrible stories cited above have been about your son or your wife? Might cameras not have helped identify the perpetrators in these cases, especially since -- in both instances -- the criminals could strike again?

However, we can too easily imagine the following scenario sent to me by a concerned reader, Craig:

Officer - Sir, do you know I pulled you over for speeding?

Driver - But I wasn't speeding

Officer - You were yesterday, a camera recorded it.

Driver - But, but! ...

Officer - (Consults Blackberry) Oh and here is another problem ... apparently you just had four rum drinks billed to your bank card not more than an hour ago. You will need to step out of your car in order for me to administer this digital alcohol screen.... it will only take a second. Otherwise, we can go downtown and make this much more trouble than it need be.

Driver - Shouldn't I call my lawyer?

Officer - My database also shows the restroom urinal detected an unprescribed painkiller in your urine. Since your wife has a prescription for this type of painkiller, officers are being dispatched to question her on potential trafficking violations.

Driver - But I have back problems and didn't have any of my own left!

Officer - That's correct, and I will take that as an admission. If failing to follow the prescribed dosage caused you to run out of pills early, you may have a problem with addiction. Sir, if you have an addiction, the state can provide the necessary treatment -- but this may have to be undertaken after you settle your DWI. Either way, I'm going to have to take you in... Oh, and that restaurant will probably lose its liquor license for serving you too many drinks.

While this vignette is a bit hyperbolic, we can see how abuses of the state can creep, and are creeping, in this direction. The state already has too much power to meddle in our affairs and could erode more of our rights, slowly-but-surely. Do we really want to give the government any more power to observe, intrude or coerce? We've been down that road before, and in the worst cases, it leads to a Gulag.

So what's to be done if we are to protect both the rights of citizens from criminals and the rights of citizens against abuses by the state? This is the Big Question. We'll return to it in a moment, but first, let's consider some specific points from readers.

Cameras + Boredom = Lechery

One reader, Julian, made a number of good points. Among them he asked me to consider Britain's experience with bored, horny men in control booths. In the absence of minute-by-minute crimes, ennui invariably sets in among these roller-chair cops. Predictably, they start using the cameras to follow around young women in skimpy outfits. Such leering is not just occasional, but normal. This is a perverse, unintended consequence (in all senses of the phrase) of municipal cameras.

I'm willing to admit that such pecadillos, however small, constitute abuses. Control-booth onanism is neither a good use of tax dollars, nor an appropriate behavior for a public servant. Some even argue that such behavior could be considered a violation of stalking laws in some states. While I don't think bored men in control rooms are necessarily stalkers, I can see cause for concern.

But as with all crime-fighting tools (e.g. guns, cars, Tazers, night-sticks), proper training, oversight, and rules for appropriate use of cameras should be firmly in place. I would even question the efficacy of monitoring by a couple of bureaucrats (beyond maintenance checks). It seems to me that surveillance cameras should be designed to provide leads and evidence after a reported street crime, not to afford some dozing roller-chair cop the opportunity actually to observe a crime-in-progress (which I'm guessing is an infrequent occurrence, anyway) or to leer at women. If the process were automated, then the issue of lechery would be moot. Still, I admit the problem of separating the method from the abuse is difficult. I'll return to this point in a moment.

Bad Laws + Technology = the Nanny State Cam

One of the most serious concerns about cameras was brought to my attention by a reader, Courtney. She points out that it's not so much that cameras violate our civil rights per se, rather it helps the Nanny State enforce ridiculous and intrusive laws already on the books. What if a street camera were to catch you sitting on your own porch smoking a joint? Courtney's right in saying that the street camera, while legitimately enforcing the law, is enforcing an illegitimate law. On this, she's absolutely right. The state should not have one iota of a thing to say about what substances you want to put into your body whilst sitting on your own porch. Cameras make it easier to discover these victimless crimes. On this, I can only say that she is right. But rather than objecting to street cameras as such, shouldn't we focus our energy on fighting paternalistic laws like one's prohibiting the private and personal use of illicit substances?

The All-Seeing Eye and the Virtually Infinite VCR

This one comes from Chris, as well as reader Julian, again. They find the notion of a state-run panopticon more than a little troubling. The mingling of technologies like face recognition software, searchable databases and ubiquitous, interconnected cameras is a recipe for the government being able to find out about your goings and doings anytime, anywhere.

Admittedly, when I wrote "Let's be Candid," I was thinking about a very narrow, here-and-now application of surveillance technology -- that is, as a discrete phenomenon in the absence of other technologies extant or in the pipeline. But a camera infrastructure becomes a stepping stone to a much more nebulous and invasive creature, the full nature of which we might not yet be able to characterize, and one which may be poised to gobble up Constitutional rights. While I don't want to fall onto any slippery-slopes, Julian and Chris are right to point out that myopia can be dangerous and converging technologies, monsters.

Having said that, David Brin via Arnold Kling at TCS offers an interesting middle-ground solution:

"Brin argues that if surveillance technology were treated as public property, like city streets or national parks, then the potential for evil could be contained. He envisions a world in which no one can avoid being watched, so that there is 'mutually assured surveillance.' Even if I were tempted to be a peeping tom or a stalker, the ability of others to observe my behavior would act to deter and constrain me.

"When people argue that surveillance tools should be kept out of the hands of government, Brin argues that this is unrealistic, because officials inevitably view this as hampering their effectiveness. It is more realistic, in Brin's view, that we could strike a deal in which government has access to the best tools to do its job on the condition that the public has access to those same tools."

Kling has some concerns about this approach, as he realized the potential by governments slowly to garner monopoly power over the technologies. Still, I'm reminded of distributed computing, or the decentralized SETI model of watching the sky for extra-terrestrial signals. Instead of paying five nerds to watch the stars, put it on a screensaver and let 10,000 Trekkies do it. More eyes are likely to find the needle in Drake's haystack. In the case of cameras, if the cops are chasing skirts (virtually), people will be able to call them on it -- and the probability of apprehending a rapist increases by an order of magnitude.

Speed Cameras and Due Process

Reader Laura pointed out that government speed cameras are already springing up around the District of Columbia, near where I live. I, personally, have been nabbed in North Carolina by a camera designed to catch people running red lights.

One of the most distasteful aspects of traffic cameras is that they are cash cows -- not only for municipalities, but for the private companies that supply them. Laura is correct in pointing out first that we don't want to create any more transfer-seeking relationships between business and government than necessary. (For more on such problems, check out this book.)

But here's a more serious problem: if the camera can't photograph the driver, then the camera can't tell if the car's owner is at fault. After all, people drive other people's cars all the time... Now, once you find your $50 fine in the mail for an incident that occurred while you were off in the Bahamas, it is your job to contest the ticket and prove that you were NOT the driver in the photo. But when you have to prove your own innocence, we call that a violation of due process -- for in America at least, the onus is on the government to prove your guilt.

Laura is right. The government should never be able to shoe-horn its way into violating due process. In fact, there are numerous cases of people contesting these tickets (an undue burden on people who make $25 per hour, but who have to take half a day's work fighting for $50), and in many cases like the District of Columbia, government officials aren't listening to these complaints -- especially as they stand to gain from the revenues. It should be said that more conscientious states are banning speed cameras.

A week ago, my argument might have been that street cameras should be considered separately from due process considerations. After all, a law enforcement tool should not be conflated with the way it is properly or improperly used. But as I reflected on these points, I think my readers have something in the general assertion that it is difficult to disentangle enforcement methods from legal processes, especially in these kinds of cases -- especially since the cost of fighting the state is often too small in the face of opportunity costs associated with lost work time and intransigent judges. This is a good example of the way in which our rights get taken away little by little.

Still, if one were to argue, based on these cases, that all uses of municipal cameras are illegitimate, then I think the burden is on her to show that the due process disease infects all applications of the technology.

Back to the Big Question

This is a good place to return to the Big Question: How do we protect people from rights violations by thugs and rapists, and keep citizens' rights against government intact? It seems to me that -- while studies in Britain and Australia have shown street cameras don't yet seem to be functioning as a deterrent against violent crime -- they could certainly be useful in helping us identify and capture street criminals, and should be considered appropriate as evidence in court.

The question thus becomes: if cameras are both useful in this way (and cost effective), can we use them in more localized ways without introducing the opportunity for abuses by government? This is the question I failed to address in "Let's be Candid," and readers were right to call me on it. This week, my answer to this question is simply I don't know. But I do know this: my gut tells me that a naked anti-camera fetishism could result in a failure of security-a responsibility currently charged to the state. In other words, the gray area between rights and security is one that continues to demand further scrutiny, and it should not readily be dichotomized by jerking knees on either side (including my own).

When I think about 9-year-old Donte Manning, I want to find a way to entrust the government to use these tools properly. When I think about my wife or someone close to me being hurt by some predator on the street, I want to ask civil libertarians "what about their rights?" On the other hand, if -- in an effort to thwart the most egregious rights violations -- we allow tiny, persistent, virtually undetectable erosions of our rights by the government, we may find ourselves in a world too frighteningly close to 1984 than I was prepared to admit in my first piece. Therefore, I'd like to ask readers if they'll allow me to step back from the tone of surety I had in "Let's be Candid," and consider the conversation still open.

Max Borders is a writer in the Washington, D.C. who is known, occasionally, to eat a little crow.


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