Spying on ourselves is bad

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Boing Boing: Police camera spying on the rise in California

Backed by millions in Homeland Security dollars, California law enforcement authorities are quickly expanding video surveillance camera spying in public rights of way, a move the American Civil Liberties Union says is stripping away privacy rights while failing to dent the intended purpose: crime.

We were just talking about this last night, in the context of the hit-and-run accident early Sunday morning. The wife and I saw the victim lying in the middle of 16th Street, face down. The driver has not been caught.

We were talking about the trade-offs: privacy vs. safety. Would you be okay with more cameras in public spaces? When something like this happens, and we want to catch the driver, and more cameras would certainly help.

But, on the other hand, do you really want to be on camera all the time?  It’s not that I want to be able to break the law and not get caught.  It’s just that I don’t want to be watched all the time.  I don’t mind if there’s a camera at the ATM, or if I walk past a monument and I’m in some tourist’s vacation photo.  What I have a problem with is being watched all the time.  While cameras on 16th Street probably could have gotten the license plate of the speeding white SUV that hit this guy, they’d also catch all sorts of other things.  I know you don’t have any reasonable expectation of privacy in the middle of the city, but you have a reasonable expectation of not being filmed every moment you’re out of your house.

So, what’s the proper balance between safety and privacy?  Well, the current administration hasn’t found it yet, although by all indications they aren’t actually looking for balance.  Ideally, there would be a camera on everyone committing a serious crime, and no cameras anywhere else.  I don’t suppose that’s really feasible, though.

And, as you can see above, the ACLU doesn’t think that it’s helping to stop crime.  I don’t know what the ACLU knows about crime rates.  They certainly know a lot about protecting civil liberties, like the freedom to not be on camera all the time.

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