June 13, 2005

Watch the watchers...

This article by Max Borders in TechCentral argues that street cameras are not really a violation of civil liberties...

...Indeed, what is the difference between a cop sitting in his patrol car monitoring the streets (and you) whilst eating a Bavarian crème 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 can't 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?...

TMLutas counters:

...It's not a bad piece but misses the real problem of the cameras, they make the state too strong. A society where everything done by an individual in public is captured, stored, collated, and attached to a personal file makes it too easy to keep tabs on dissidents, on the loyal opposition, even on personal enemies of those in power....

I think they are both missing the real issue. I think David Brin got it right, in The Transparent Society, when he argued that street cameras are going to happen. They are just too effective, and people's desire for safe streets is so strong, that they are inevitable. Therefore, what civil libertarians should be pushing for is the right to watch the watchers! There's no reason why the same camera technology should not allow us to watch the cops in the control room. (And, civil liberties aside, they would do a much better job of the watching, if they knew we were looking over their shoulders, and could tell the world that Officer Muldoon was busy dunking his donut and didn't even notice the mugging on the screen in front of him.) And maybe citizens should be able to watch the streets also.

Another issue that could be pursued with profit is where, and how long, the recordings are to be stored. Hizzoner the mayor should not be able to collect juicy clips of his political opponents visiting low dives. Perhaps those concerned with civil liberties should be pushing for the feeds to be stored where they are not available, except by court order if they hold evidence of a crime or accident. And they should be erased after a set time.

We are inevitably going to have less "privacy" in public spaces just because of the ever increasing amounts of information that is being captured. The Internet is a sort of public area, but this blog post, though it will probably be read by only a few hundred people, is available to the world, and is possibly being stored in ways I've never heard of, and could be used against me in the future. But the privacy of "big city anonymity" is actually not the norm in history. Most people have lived in small communities, where almost everything is known about everybody. A certain amount of that is coming back, whether we like it or not.

Posted by John Weidner at June 13, 2005 12:32 PM
Weblog by John Weidner