Life in a “Surveillance Society”

Governments throughout history have maximized their power by pointing to threats, internal and external, as justifications for “increased security measures” – also known to some as “diminishing freedoms.” The issue is not whether the threats are real or not – there are plenty of real threats in the world, from malignant bacteria to nuclear weapons – but the way in which we respond to them. Does battening down society’s hatches by limiting mobility and surveilling the populace even work? Does it make us “safer”?One of the consequences of the 9/11 attack was to bring issues of freedom vs. security to the fore once again. The international boogeyman of communism having been half-slain with the demise of the USSR (China, once the junior partner, is holding on by a thread), the Islamofascist threat ratcheted up the terror to provide yet another common enemy. Let’s take a look at how two Western nations, Britain and the U.S., responded to the threat.You’re on TV! The British can now exclaim with egalitarian glee that all of its subjects (they aren’t “citizens,” you know) are TV stars. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that they are all on TV. London, by various accounts, has some four to six million close-circuit television (CCTV) cameras keeping tabs on its 7.5 million inhabitants. They are getting close to having one camera for each person. Now there’s equality!But has the constant surveillance helped keep crime and terrorism in check? Apparently, in a few “terrorism cases and several high-profile murders, London’s ubiquitous CCTV cameras have played a key role” – but only in “reconstructing what happened,” and only “after the fact.”"CCTV was originally seen as a preventative measure,” according to Detective Chief Inspector Mike Neville, head of the Visual Images, Identifications and Detections Office of Scotland Yard. According to his speech at a London conference last May, Neville considers the entire CCTV project to have been “an utter fiasco: Only 3% of crimes were solved by CCTV.” Not very good results for a system that was sold as video security for “law-abiding citizens.”People not “fearful” enough In an unintended bit of Orwellian candor, the Inspector admitted that Londoners have “no fear of CCTV.” Instead of being on their best behavior for the eagle-eyed constables working in the numerous “monitoring stations” in the city, people appear to be going about their usual business, whether felonious or innocent. Neville says they do so because they know that “the cameras are not working.”Actual camera failures are soon corrected, so in that sense they are “working.” What the good Inspector meant was that, in court, the quality of the images is often less than what is required for a positive identification. In addition, investigators are not willing to slog through hours of video to prosecute petty crimes.The verdict? London’s CCTV experiment has failed in its stated goal, but has mitigated the particular failure by having a general effect with which the government is quite pleased. There is little discussion of the principle at stake – that is, liberty – and the tension between it and security that has been at the root of Americans’ distrust of government surveillance efforts.North American inroads That innate distrust may be a North American trait, as our neighbors to the north, the Canadians, are still individualistic enough (or enough of them are) to at least stoke a national debate on the topic. The Toronto police are experimenting with CCTV right now, and the city’s Transit Commission is completing work on an $18 million camera system it claims will “capture every one” of its “2.5 million daily users on video.” And the op-ed columns and letters to the editor are fairly blazing with controversy. Well, a small, polite blaze, at any rate.Unfortunately, judging from the column inches devoted to each side of the issue, it appears that Canadians in general, and the “privileged press” in particular, are solidly behind the notion of surveillance. Apparently they believe that they will find a “nice Canadian way” of doing it that respects rights, uses renewable resources and takes flattering portraits.Americans, of course, are another breed entirely, a breed of a thousand contrarian bloodlines. As the asylum and haven of the world, our national character has a wide streak of individualism, and an instinctive distrust of power and people who like wielding it. Still, surveillance cameras, traffic cams and other CCTV installations are proliferating here, too, and are sold as examples of “Yankee ingenuity” and the natural evolution of “good government.”Refining the terms of debate The important thing for supporters of privacy rights to recognize is that video security technology has not reached the power-to-price ratio that would allow widespread installation in any Western country. Higher-resolution cameras and better lenses raise the cost substantially, while the low-end optics used in police surveillance cameras, at least in London, capture images that usually don’t help capture the crooks.Opponents of government snooping can use utilitarian arguments now, as well as philosophical ones. The fact is, the cameras don’t do what they’re advertised to do, notwithstanding that, in America, what they are asked to do seems quite Constitutionally questionable. And the utilitarian argument that the cameras don’t work anyway does not counter the pro-surveillance argument that newer, better, more powerful and even cheaper technology is becoming available.Therefore, opposing surveillance on merely utilitarian grounds is a losing proposition, especially with the pace of technological progress today. Principled opposition is required. Benjamin Franklin’s great insight on freedom vs. security, having been mauled and misquoted by so many writers and politicos in the last few years, is here in its original form for your consideration:The man who trades freedom for security does not deserve nor will he ever receive either.Compromise is not always possible. That is the challenging subtext here, a message that speaks to the sense of personal responsibility that is fast vanishing in the world. Of course, video surveillance itself is neither good nor evil. It is the application that counts. In the hands of government, surveillance cameras will end up doing damage, great and small. In the hands of individuals, however, they can be a true boon and have various uses.A thousand or a million or even 20 million CCTV cameras installed in the U.S., hither and yon and under the control of a vast range of different people, shouldn’t raise a single hair on the back of a dedicated civil libertarian’s neck. It’s when all of the cameras are centralized and controlled by one entity that people, and not just civil rights activists, should get concerned.From concern, one should move to education. Read all you can about the subject and stay informed on what local, regional and state governments are doing in this regard, in addition to the ongoing shenanigans in Washington, D.C. Whatever you ultimately decide in this matter – and you may or may not agree with everything in this article – you will at least be an informed participant in an important national discussion. We have to be able to hash out all these issues without reaching for our opponents’ throats.As long as we can still “agree to disagree” there is hope. But if it takes the courts disagreeing with the executive branch – here with a lower case “e” as it deserves – to stop police-state BS in its tracks, well, hey! That would give me a little bit of hope. Indeed it would.

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