TCS Daily

Let's Be Candid About Cameras

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

Has the Big Brother trope gotten too big? As more municipalities adopt video surveillance in lieu of beat cops, more civil libertarians have become outraged. But why? Most people who oppose them say it just feels creepy. Others whip out the Big Brother clich like a switchblade that is supposed to cut down any counterargument for cleaner, safer streets. "If we want our town in the area we live in to be secure for us, we cannot sacrifice liberty," says Jared Feuer during a public meeting in Long Island. "Surveillance cameras do undermine freedom." But do they?

Maybe its time we looked at the issue through a more critical lens, as it seems paranoia about street cameras may be nothing more than an outgrowth of 20th Century Orwellian mythology.


The first thing we should ask is: what civil right do street cameras violate? Some claim that city surveillance is a violation of ones right to privacy. After all, each of us likes to think he-or-she has a certain domain that is protected from intrusion by government agents and drifters alike. Indeed, certain aspects of our lives are no concern of others, and we should always be vigilant in protecting this sacred sphere of person, privacy and property. Such, after all, is what the 4th Amendment was intended to do.


So is a street camera a violation of someones right to privacy? Lets agree for the sake of this conversation that we are going to have public places like streets, sidewalks, parking lots, parks and government buildings. That is to say, there is not yet a libertopia where all property is privately owned or governed by a quasi-private community covenant. If some places are going to be public -- that is, a shared space -- surely they will be streets and public thoroughfares. Now, under what political or philosophical doctrine have we ever been able to demand privacy in public places? Public is public by definition. (We dont require that people avert their eyes when were waiting at the DMV.)


Indeed, what is the difference between a cop sitting in his patrol car monitoring the streets (and you) whilst eating a Bavarian crme and that same cop sitting in a control room doing the same? You may respond that, in one instance, the cop is not visible to you. But there is nothing to say that cops cant monitor people while obscured by alleyway shadows. In fact, they do it all the time. Would anyone argue that this is a civil rights violation?


The point is there is effectively no difference between eyeball surveillance and camera surveillance except a few wires and some distance. Maybe people find it objectionable that they might be recorded. But again, how does recording people on the street violate their privacy? We might not be as likely to pick our noses if we know someone is watching, but is a video recording of public nose-picking a civil rights violation? Its difficult to see how it is, especially when we might be able to catch a rapist or murderer with the tape.


When it comes to cameras in public thoroughfares, the question should come down to simple cost-benefit analysis. In the absence of rights violations, are public cameras a good use of taxpayers resources? As more people come to learn about the reality of ubiquitous surveillance, will they be less likely to commit crimes (i.e. real rights violations)? If people are committing crimes in public, are the cameras helping law enforcement apprehend the criminals? Has the technology become inexpensive enough? Can fewer police officers help save tax dollars without diminishing cities capabilities to fight crime?


If youve ever watched any off-season television show about surveillance cameras installed in private businesses, you can see -- anecdotally at least -- how many bad guys are caught on film. From bank robberies to 7-11 stickups, private cameras have helped nab a lot of criminals at a relatively low cost. Why shouldnt the same be true for public cameras?


The Big Brother story is powerful in a number of ways. It has taught us about the dangers of giving government too much power to meddle in our lives -- especially in our personal affairs and on our private property. Government cameras in peoples homes and businesses would be a civil rights violation of the highest order. But using surveillance technology as a means of keeping our streets safer and cleaner (hopefully in a more cost effective way) is a win-win to my mind. Cameras on public streets do not amount to a slippery slope towards 1984. Instead its a twenty-first century method for keeping our public areas cleaner and more secure. Lets not let hyperbole get in the way of good policy.


Max Borders is a freelance writer in the Washington, DC area (who isn't all that photogenic, in case Big Brother is watching).


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