TCS Daily


Panopticons, Old and New

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - July 12, 2005 12:00 AM

One lesson taught by the London bombings is that security cameras don't seem to help much. As Noah Shachtman of Defense Tech notes:

Londoners are seen on the city's vast amalgam of surveillance cameras an average of 300 times a day. Which means that the terrorists behind yesterday's bombings almost certainly knew they'd be caught on tape -- and went ahead with their attacks anyway.

 

As a deterrent, at least, they were a failure. Civil libertarians fear these cameras, with some reason (my guess is that they'll be used more to catch parking scofflaws and to dig up dirt on political opponents than to reduce crime or terrorism) but the real story is their ineffectiveness. Every cop sitting in a control room, eating doughnuts and watching monitors, could be out on the street, looking at things with his or her own eyes and in a position to do something about what he or she sees. Nonetheless, the response to the London bombings will probably include a call for more, not fewer, cameras.

 

That's a mistake. As Jeffrey Rosen wrote in a superb essay published just after 9/11 (but sadly no longer available online), London's "ring of steel" camera network never caught a terrorist:

 

Galvanizing acts of terrorism tend to provoke sweeping increases in domestic surveillance that change the character of civic life without deterring or preventing future terrorist attacks. By learning from the excessive and ineffective responses of the past, America can focus its energies on retaliating against the guilty rather than transforming life for the innocent.

 

That's true -- and, compared to past wars, we actually did what Rosen called for after 9/11. The mass internments, deportations, and censorship that some feared never materialized, and even critics of the Patriot Act (like me) have moderated their rhetoric as its rather limited nature has become more apparent.

 

But if constant vigilance is the price of liberty -- and experience suggests that it is -- then constant vigilance may also be a way to prevent and respond to terrorism. The question isn't whether someone should be looking for terrorists, but rather who should be looking, and how.

In that regard, the London "ring of steel" model looks pretty obsolete: a mid-twentieth-century fantasy rather than a 21st century approach. (Even its name carries a whiff of Stalinism, doesn't it?) But maybe we could learn something from what happened after the attacks.

 

As Matea Gold reported in the Los Angeles Times:

 

Shortly after bombs ripped through London's transportation system Thursday morning, U.S. and British television networks began airing the first footage of the aftermath -- dim images of shaken commuters streaming through a smoky underground tunnel.

 

The video provided an immediate and intimate look at the scene but was hardly polished or professional. That's because it was shot by passengers with mobile phones -- the first widespread use of that technology in covering a major breaking news story. Loaded with features including text messaging, video games, cameras, live TV and the ability to record and transmit video through the Internet, the phones have become must-have items, especially among teens. They've been banned as voyeuristic irritants -- or worse -- at venues ranging from schools to Hollywood movie screenings. But, as they proved in London on Thursday, they can also provide a ground-level view of history.

 

"You forget how many people have these phones now and how much more of the first minutes of an event you're going to see," said Chuck Lustig, director of foreign news coverage for ABC.

 

That's a real Panopticon. And unlike the passive security camera network, every one of these cameras was wielded by a person on the spot, applying intelligence to decide what was interesting. The results were likely a lot better -- and they'll only improve as the technology gets more capable and more ubiquitous.

 

The next step, of course, is to apply these resources to the prevention of terrorist attacks. As R.P. Eddy observed in the London Times, modern terrorism is a dispersed, local phenomenon, calling for more local efforts in prevention:

 

Local police have unique advantages over national assets (such as MI5) to help prevent acts of terrorism because they are part of the community. They "walk the beat," communicate regularly with local residents, and are more likely to notice even subtle changes in the neighbourhoods they patrol daily. Common sense tells us -- as does experience -- that local law-enforcement personnel are uniquely situated to notice (or otherwise learn of) and investigate unusual or suspicious behaviour. Based on the numbers alone, we can assume that local law enforcement personnel are much more likely than national agents to cross paths with terrorists. . . . Failure to develop and foster "first preventers" among local law enforcement leaves our cities and towns defenceless to the increasing threat of homegrown terror. Local prevention is the first -- and may also be the last -- line of defence before any attack.

 

Local police are in a better position than national organizations -- at least when they're walking beats, and not eating doughnuts in front of a TV monitor. But ordinary (or perhaps extraordinary) citizens are in a better position still. As I've written before, a fast-moving, dispersed threat requires a fast-moving and widely dispersed response. Old-fashioned centralized efforts, like networks of security cameras, cost a lot of money and don't contribute much to this sort of a response. Getting citizens more involved in noticing, and responding, to terror threats is likely to do more good.

 

There's another advantage of this sort of decentralized approach, of course. A network of security cameras can -- and almost certainly will, judging from experience -- be abused by authorities. A system that depends on the cooperation of thousands (or millions) of citizens, on the other hand, isn't so easily turned to oppression.

 

Orwell's Big Brother had a network of security cameras; he would have been horrified at a network of cellphones. We should let that be our touchstone, in figuring out ways to respond to terrorism effectively.

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