Baronger's Scribblings

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Cameras in the Public Space - Bringing the small town to the big city.

Cameras and Counterterrorism by Heather Mac Donald, is a common take on the raging controversy surrounding having cameras monitor public spaces. The big fear is that there will be a loss of anonymity. In large cities everyone is a nameless face in the crowd. It's ok if a local policeman sees you, for he has no idea who you are. However if you live in a small town, the local peace officer probably knows you. He probably goes to church with your parents. He might have been your classmate at school. He probably remembers every single time he pulled you over for speeding.

Now with modern technology, big city cops are going to become much more like the small city police or county deputy. Facial recognition and information sharing will give all cops a huge increase in knowledge. Soon a policeman watching a monitor will know the identity of everyone with a police record he sees on the screen. Like the online games, a person's name will flash above a person's head on the screen, along with information as to his status. The police will know if the person has committed felonies, if that person is on a terrorist watch list and even more ominously where his listed address is. Civil libertarians would be outraged at this huge increase in the ability of the police to identify people. Yet the small town cop already carries all of this info and ability under his hat and yet there are no cries that he needs to be lobotomized.

It is often said that in a small town they are no secrets. The same might soon be true for a large city. Already blogs are given the power of gossip incredible power. People blog about their jobs and the people they work with. As this becomes more common, we will all soon have our private business known by others. Scary yes, but the problem is also the solution. The victim of gossip has the power to get online start their own blog and put out their side of the story. Pretty soon not only police but the common citizen will have facial recognition tech. See someone you think you might know, well use your cell phone to click a pic and run an id check on them. Instead of being a sea of strangers the city will become a sea of semi-casual acquaintances. It might just possibly be the return of the small town mindset to the big city.

The rural areas often have lower crime rate then the big city. This is because everyone can look out for everyone else. The bad elements in town are known. This means that they doesn't have to be that big of a police force. This means that far from cameras increasing the power of a police state, it might have the opposite effect. It might mean that we won't need as many peace officers as the citizenry assume some of the responsibility of keeping the peace. Common citizens with access to information, can shed light into the shadows that criminals and terrorists lurk.

The police having information in a big city is no different then them having information in a small town. It's not the information that is the problem, it's what they do with it. The only way to stop abuse of power is to have an active and informed citizenry who can group together. The same information systems open to the police will be open to the citizenry, to prevent abuse. After all if there is an officer of the law, who is abusing his power, I am sure that they will be citizenry talking about him and emailing his supervisor and their local representative.

The real question is not if the police will use technology to abuse the population. The question is how will the police function in this age of hypervigilance. We have already seen police chases and arrests regularly on television. Video tapes of arrests are becoming more and more common. Interviews and interrogations are routinely videotaped. The video cameras in cop cars are more a protection for the common citizen then they are for the cop. There is a difference in cameras in a totalitarian state and in a democracy. The difference is in who owns the power.

I doubt that we will see people being inhibited. A person behaving a certain way in public in front of dozens if not hundreds of people will probably not act differently if they are video taped. A police camera will just have the same effect as a live police man standing on the corner. Hidden cameras will just be the difference between a marked and an unmarked police car. I don't see a demand that undercovered officers, have to wear uniforms. The only thing that cameras will deter is unlawful activity. Just as no one speeds past a marked police car on the highway, people will be similarily dissuaded from committing open crimes.

The money quote from the article is this:

The idea that a society that has long defined the pinnacle of success as getting your picture on TV, where hordes of would-be exhibitionists vie to be humiliated on reality TV shows, where thousands of others erect video cameras in their homes to broadcast truly private behavior to millions on the Internet —the idea that such a publicity-ravenous society would care one iota about cameras on boulevards or in ATM facilities defies logic. But the privacy fanatics’ counterintuitive claim can be tested empirically. Are London girls any more inhibited about exposing vast swathes of midriff than girls in unsurveilled cities? Is foot traffic on Oxford Street less than one would expect from the population density? Did British streets empty upon the highly-publicized installation of cameras? These are all testable hypotheses; none of the privacy fear-mongers has suggested investigating them, much less done so; they know the results will expose their claims as fraudulent.

Ordinary people, you see, understand an elemental truth that continuously eludes the civil liberties lobby: public cameras only capture public behavior, behavior already observable by many more eyes than will ever watch a video feed from a nearby camera. In fact, the only people whom public cameras inhibit are criminals; they liberate the law-abiding public. Following the installation of seven video cameras in Los Angeles's beleaguered MacArthur Park in 2004, the L.A.P.D. watched "“in amazement"” as crime plummeted, gangs, drug dealers, and pimps disappeared, and low-income families began returning to the park, reported the Los Angeles Times in October.



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