Be Careful what you Wish For

As the Wall Street Journal notes,

Video cameras played a critical role in helping authorities track suspects in this week’s Boston bombings.  Now calls for increased camera surveillance in the US are putting a spotlight on the technology and the debate about its use.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg bragged about that city’s surveillance system.  It can

alert police to abnormalities it detects on the street, such as an abandoned package that is left on a corner.

Charles Ramsey, Philadelphia Police Commissioner, said on Fox News Sunday:

It gives you that historical record.

But such a ubiquitous government-run surveillance system also can alert government to abnormalities of which it disapproves—like individual citizens taking part in “right-wing extremist” peaceful rallies and meetings.  And there’s that government record on us private citizens thing, again.

In the present case, though, the matter of the Boston Marathon bombing, whose cameras were they?  The government’s cameras were involved in the data collection and subsequent hunt, certainly.  However, so were thousands of privately owned still and video cameras—all those smart phone cameras in the hands of Marathon fans and other ordinary citizens just out taking care of their own business in the area.

It was private citizens’ imagery and private citizens’ eye witness reports (one injured witness: “he looked right at me” and the boat owner’s sighting and 911 call) that generated the imagery, descriptions, and location data that so thoroughly supported the hunt, the tracking, and the capture.

Does government, today, really need such a widespread surveillance system?  No doubt the government’s surveillance cameras were highly useful, too, in this incident.  A tool for keeping track of the citizenry that’s in government hands, though, is subject to misuse, even if the tracking is for the best of reasons, as our government might assure us.  A tool for tracking one’s neighbors—or strangers—in private hands is subject to misuse, also, certainly.

Think, though, about which misuse is capable of the greater damage.

Think, also, about the extant government abuse of its surveillance capability.  Already, for instance, the present administration (and both national political parties) are scraping social media for personally identifying data for government (and party) purposes.  The IRS already is asserting its authority to read, without a court’s order, private email as part of its investigations (while denying it actually does so).  Do we need government actively tracking us private citizens?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *