Do We Really Want Big Brother Watching Us?
By John W. Whitehead
“There was, of course, no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment…. You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”—George Orwell, 1984
We live in a surveillance age.
From the biggest city to the smallest town, we have succumbed to the siren-song promise that surveillance cameras will not only stop crime, they will actually make us safer.
New York City, for example, is estimated to have over 4,000 surveillance cameras. Other big cities using these cameras include the District of Columbia, Boston, Baltimore and Chicago. The Mayberry-size town of Bellows Falls, Vt., with its eight full-time police officers, plans to install 16 surveillance cameras. Even the quaint college town of Charlottesville, Va., where I live and work, is considering installing 30 surveillance cameras in its small downtown mall area to monitor its citizens.
Peering at passersby from their mounted positions on street poles, closed-circuit television systems (CCTVs) are the most common type of surveillance cameras. These pole cameras are usually monitored by police officers, retired police officers and sometimes private citizens. Although less common, Portable Overt Digital Surveillance Systems (PODs) are much more mobile and recognizable by their flashing blue lights. Often referred to as “footballs” for their easy mobility, PODs are monitored via transportable devices that look like briefcases.
In an era of webcams and reality TV shows, the presence of surveillance cameras on public streets may not seem like much of an intrusion. After all, having already given up so much ground when it comes to our privacy rights, it might seem almost unreasonable to expect it in public. And as I’ve had pointed out to me countless times, constant surveillance shouldn’t make a difference to a law-abiding citizen with nothing to hide.
Yet whether or not you’ve done anything wrong, when you’re the one being watched, life suddenly feels more oppressive. And it won’t stop with surveillance cameras on the streets. As Rob Selevitch, president of the security company CEI Management Corp., predicts, “Cradle to grave, you’re going to be on camera all the time.” Imagine having every conversation you’ve ever had or every place you’ve ever visited tracked by someone behind a camera. It’s a chilling thought—or at least it should be to anyone who values their privacy.
Under such constant surveillance, you will find yourself becoming painfully conscious of being observed, recorded and judged. Without realizing it, you will begin to censor your own actions—in regard to even the most innocuous of things. Unfortunately, once these 24-hour sleepless snoops have been installed and taxpayers presented with the hefty price tag (it cost Baltimore about $10 million; the cameras being considered in Charlottesville are expected to cost around $300,000), it will be too late to consider the ramifications of living in a surveillance society.
What reason would be compelling enough to cause a nation of people who claim to value their privacy to relinquish it without a fight? Is it because these cameras are effective at fighting crime? Or is it because they make us feel safer? Bruce Schneier, founder and Chief Technology Officer of Counterpane Internet Security, seems to think it’s the latter. As he remarked in an interview with Business Week, “A lot of security measures are very much of a feel-good nature. They’re not effective but are meant to look effective. We demand our public officials do something, even if it does no good.”
Since the September 11th terrorist attacks, Americans have become easy targets for almost any scheme that promises to make us safer. Kept in a state of constant unease by color-coded terror alerts and vague government reports of foiled terror plots, we have been primed to meekly accept that government officials have our best interests at heart and are doing their best to keep us safe. And we have been assured that giving them access to our every move on the streets will reduce crime and prevent terrorism.
We have been sold a bill of goods.
A 2005 study by the British government, which boasts the most extensive surveillance camera coverage in the world at approximately 4 million cameras (one for every 14 people), found that of all the areas studied, surveillance cameras generally failed to achieve a reduction in crime. Indeed, while these snooping devices tended to reduce premeditated or planned crimes such as burglary, vehicle crime, criminal damage and theft, they failed to have an impact on more spontaneous crimes such as violence against the person and public order offenses such as public drunkenness. Surveillance cameras have also been found to have a “displacement” effect on crime. Thus, rather than getting rid of crime, surveillance cameras force criminal activity to move from the area being watched to other surrounding areas.
And while a surveillance camera might help law enforcement identify a suicide bomber after the fact, as Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center notes, “Cameras are not an effective way to stop a person that is prepared to commit that kind of act.” Rotenberg points to the 2005 terrorist subway bombings in London as an example. He explained that surveillance cameras “did help determine the identity of the suicide bombers and aided the police in subsequent investigations, but obviously they had no deterrent effect in preventing the act, because suicide bombers are not particularly concerned about being caught in the act.”
Human nature being what it is, no amount of technology will completely prevent people, especially terrorists, from doing evil. And, in the end, it’s the law-abiding citizens who will suffer because in a society where there is no right to privacy and surveillance cameras are the eyes and ears of government, we are all suspects.