Monday, July 9, 2007

Security Cameras, Big Brother, and Good Sense

The London / Glasgow car bombing attempts highlighted the usefulness of security cameras. Finding two of the car bombs before they exploded helped - but so did having footage from the 160 security cameras in the district including Piccadilly Circus and the Haymarket area. Plus all the others distributed around the United Kingdom.

Even with a near-miss like the June attack to demonstrate the utility of security cameras, I doubt that cities in the US will install or upgrade the things without someone raising a fuss.

In fact, I know it: The complaints have already started.

As more cities in the States decide that crime levels are too high, and that terrorists might target them, I think we'll be seeing more headlines like this: "Network of surveillance cameras proposed for Pittsburgh" (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 27, 2007).

The city government is planning to link the hundreds of existing surveillance cameras in Pittsburgh together so that they can be monitored from one place. Besides the cameras they have, there will be two on each of 14 bridges, four on the U.S. Steel Tower, and more in Point State Park.

The system won't be just cameras: devices which can read vehicle license plates and run them through databases will "look" through the cameras; and gunshot detection systems would be set up in two neighborhoods, plus a state park. The latter systems can instantly pinpoint the location of a shooting and take pictures.

It's legal: John M. Burkoff, a University of Pittsburgh law professor, said that using the cameras "is lawful as long as they are used in places, like public areas, where people don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy," in the same article.

It's controversial, of course.

On the one hand, drunk drivers bank robbers, and other lawbreakers will have video evidence to deal with when their turn in court rolls around.

On the other hand, the tried and true phrase "Big Brother" gets brought out and passed around.

Not that everyone who doesn't like the idea of video cameras in public places trots out Orwell's classic. The EPIC (1) chief said, "To make it so that no matter what you're doing, someone is watching -- what kind of a society is that?"

The same public safety/"privacy" debate isn't limited to the States. An article in The Scotsman with the headline "'Big Brother' concerns as secret system of cameras is rolled out" (26 August, 2006) discussed a network of roadside cameras in the UK.

What's secret about the networks seems to be the way that police aren't telling where the cameras are. Even worse, the cameras "looks like ordinary speed cameras."

It occurs to me that disguising the special cameras is hardly sporting.

The privacy brigade is active in the United Kingdom. Quoting from the article, the Assistant Chief Constable of Fife Constabulary said, "the technology also allowed them to identify the faces of drivers. He said legislation would have to be introduced to allow such intimate monitoring and acknowledged 'a debate will have to be had' as to whether such tactics would be acceptable."

A debate about whether it is fair to recognize the driver of a vehicle?

That may be a blog for another day.

And, getting back the EPIC chief, "no matter what you're doing, someone is watching -- what kind of a society is that?"

As a long-time resident in a small Minnesota town, I can answer that question.

A society in which no matter where you are, short of a rest room stall or somebody's home, someone is watching would be very much like Small Town America.

It may not have the "privacy" that so many people seem to crave, but I'd willingly trade the security and mutual support of small towners for being one unit in a metropolitan street scene.

((1) Melissa Ngo is senior counsel and director of the identification and surveillance project of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.)

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Note! Although I believe that these websites and blogs are useful resources for understanding the War on Terror, I do not necessarily agree with their opinions. 1 1 Given a recent misunderstanding of the phrase "useful resources," a clarification: I do not limit my reading to resources which support my views, or even to those which appear to be accurate. Reading opinions contrary to what I believed has been very useful at times: sometimes verifying my previous assumptions, sometimes encouraging me to change them.

Even resources which, in my opinion, are simply inaccurate are sometimes useful: these can give valuable insights into why some people or groups believe what they do.

In short, It is my opinion that some of the resources in this blogroll are neither accurate, nor unbiased. I do, however, believe that they are useful in understanding the War on Terror, the many versions of Islam, terrorism, and related topics.