SMILE! You’re on Candid Camera! (Don’t You Feel Safer?)

This is one of the most disturbing trends that I’ve seen building over the last few years – more and more cameras being used by governments to observe the people they supposedly work for. These cameras take two forms: closed circuit TV where a few officials sit in some dark room and observe banks of monitors (or videotapes run for later review); and unattended cameras such as those used in speed traps which are checked periodically and used as revenue-gathering devices. In each case the cameras are installed with the promise of increasing “public safety,” yet the facts are that they do no such thing. I touched on this topic very briefly in “England Slides Further Toward Bondage” back in November, but I want to expand on this topic now because it was a closed-circuit TV camera that caught footage of the abduction of Carlie Brucia and led to the capture of her killer. But it’s hardly all up-sided.

I came across this Christian Science Monitor article in a link at FuturePundit that claims Britain has one (government run) CCTV camera for each 14 inhabitants, yet the evidence is that such surveillance only makes people think they’re safer. Read the entire FuturePundit piece, as Randall Parker goes into more detail concerning the effectiveness of these systems than I am going to. Go ahead, I’ll wait….

Finished? Good. Then I discovered that new blogger Gunner, proprietor of No Quarters, also had something to say on the topic (scroll down to “Burn Baby, Burn”). He links to two groups who are resisting the other kind of cameras, the ones used as revenue devices, and news stories of these cameras destroyed by “resisters.”

Finally, there’s a post by the Geekwitha.45 on just one example of the idiocy of CCTV’s as a deterrent. His take on the subject has more to do with the death of jury nullification, but in “This is what happens…”, he tells the story of one Richard Albert who had the temerity to drive around the gate at a closed U.S./Canadian border station so he could go to his chosen church on Sundays. He faces a $5,000 fine for that.

As the Geek put it:

Since the gate is “duck aroundable”, the border station is pretty useless, isn’t it? But no, they installed cameras, and started taking pictures and handing out $5000 dollar fines to residents.


What extreme bullshit. Harrassing the local residents with revenue collection activities has absolutely nothing to do with serving the principles of securing our borders.

Not. A. Damned. Thing.

And the cameras?

Absofuckinglutely Pointless.

Any Al-Q agent who slipped through would be long, long gone, hidden in Boston or NYC within the next 10 hours, and whatever car they drove will have been ditched along the way.

Well, yes.

But don’t you feel safer? And isn’t that what matters?

In Orwell’s 1984 Big Brother put a camera in every room of your home. You never knew if you were being observed, but you knew you could be. In England today, they haven’t gotten to that point, but a ratio of one camera per 14 citizens subjects is, to me at least, disturbing. According to this USAToday piece:

If you live in London, you can’t get through a typical day without being captured on tape at least eight times – and possibly as many as 300.


“What you’re looking at in Britain, with saturation CCTV coverage in every nook and cranny of the country, is what you’ll be seeing all over the United States in the next 5 years.”

So sayeth Simon Davies, head of Privacy International, which predicts 6 million CCTV cameras in the U.S. in five to seven years.

The Christian Science Monitor piece points to two incidents where CCTV was used to apprehend violent criminals, one in which a “knife wielding assailant” was captured shortly after his crime was taped for posterity, and another more heinous crime in which 2-year old Jamie Bulger was abducted and murdered by two other children.

But here’s the difference: In the case of both Jamie Bulger and Carlie Brucia, the cameras that captured the footage were not run by any government agency. They were owned by the businesses at which the children were abducted. In none of these cases were these crimes prevented by the presence of cameras, though it is true that the cameras made it far easier to identify and capture the criminals. In the case of privately owned surveillance equipment, the implementation of these cameras is restricted by privacy laws, and the information they gather is not the property of any government body. If there is a crime, then the information can be freely given to the appropriate government agency, or that agency can attempt to get it through legal subpoena, but when the government owns and installs the cameras then they have little incentive to follow the requisite laws. For example, the CSM piece notes:

(S)erious question marks hang over the technology and its dark Orwellian implications. Many cameras are hidden or not signposted, in breach of regulations. Several cases of abuse have been documented, raising fears of snooping or worse.

According to this ACLU piece:

Surveillance systems present law enforcement “bad apples” with a tempting opportunity for criminal misuse. In 1997, for example, a top-ranking police official in Washington, DC was caught using police databases to gather information on patrons of a gay club. By looking up the license plate numbers of cars parked at the club and researching the backgrounds of the vehicles’ owners, he tried to blackmail patrons who were married.

Powerful surveillance tools also create temptations to abuse them for personal purposes. An investigation by the Detroit Free Press, for example, showed that a database available to Michigan law enforcement was used by officers to help their friends or themselves stalk women, threaten motorists after traffic altercations, and track estranged spouses.

And I should be surprised… why?

The proliferation of closed-circuit TV and traffic camera systems is a given, since very few people appreciate or even consider the downsides. I have no answers for you here, though I’m quite enthusiastic about the vandalism civil disobedience idea (not that I’d ever do anything illegal, you understand.) The idea that surveillance and recognition systems might someday become as ubiquitous as illustrated in Spielberg’s film Minority Report bothers the hell out of me. I can think of nothing to add to FuturePundit’s concluding paragraph:

There is a limit to what technology can do to counteract the decay of a culture that has lost belief in the right of law-abiding people to defend themselves. One of the hardest problems when trying to guess about the future is that there is no way of knowing whether any given culture will partially or totally decay and become very degenerate. More generally, what technology can make possible is a far larger set of possibilities than what people will choose to do with it.

What do you think?

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