Surveillance Cameras: Good or Bad?

Posted on April 25, 2013


While some argue against a creeping Big-Brother-like atmosphere, surveillance cameras undeniably help solve crimes.

Neil Richards, writing for CNN, argues that our camera-happy authorities pose a risk to our freedom and privacy.  While he concedes that surveillance recordings were a key in the swift identification of the Boston Marathon bombers, he lays out his arguments against increasing the numbers of cameras operating in public spaces.  They’re expensive, he says.  They are no substitute for real police officers.  They don’t stop crimes.  And as the technology improves, our privacy diminishes; paired with facial-recognition software, the cameras conceivably could amount to an ability to track individuals in real time, all the time.

I could argue with any of these points:  Police cars and police officers are expensive too.  The cameras are not meant to be a substitute for the police; they are only a tool.  They do deter some crimes, as any alarm-system company can tell you; and their recordings help solve those crimes that do occur.  Like the Boston bombing.

As far as eventually tracking individuals on a constant basis,  Mr. Richards goes on to make an additional leap of the imagination, envisioning a dark future and invoking a dark past:

“Such a system would conceivably give the government increased power over us, power that could be used not just to monitor, but in some cases, potentially, to blackmail, persuade or discriminate. Police on every corner might be one thing, but police who can instantly see your identity papers and constantly track you are another… History has shown repeatedly that broad government surveillance powers inevitably get abused, whether by the Gestapo, the Stasi, or our own FBI, which engaged in unlawful surveillance (and blackmail) of “dangerous” people like Martin Luther King Jr.”

Well, yes, anything can be abused, but the fact that Mr. Richards cites abuses from the 1940s and 1950s only points up the fact that cameras are a mere tool, not an ethical construct.  For most people who just go about their daily business, what is there to fear from a camera in a public place?  Mr. Richards need not worry just yet.  What we have right now is an amorphous, disconnected patchwork of cameras: ATMs, store and parking lot security, gas stations, traffic cameras, toll booths, and so on.  We are being recorded all the time, but the cameras are not all tied in to a greater network and cannot “track” you.  Yet, when something like the Boston attack occurs, investigators request footage from nearby cameras in hopes that the images will reveal details of the crime.  I’d say this is a good thing.

Having your image recorded in public can work to your advantage, too, in ways other than public safety.  Consider the case of Louis Gonzalez III, falsely accused of a sexual assault by his former girlfriend, in an ugly custody battle.  He spent time in jail.  His job was jeopardized.  His reputation suffered.  The only thing that saved him was video surveillance from several different locations, proving that he could not possibly have committed the crime.  Now, as the Los Angeles Times reported, he protects himself from any future accusations the same way:

“If he’s in an airport or a 7-Eleven, he makes sure the surveillance cameras get a good look at his face. Anytime he can swipe his credit card and sign his name, even to buy a pack of gum, he does it. He fills his wallet with receipts and the world with a conspicuous trail.”

Consider this, too:  with the advancements in cell phones in recent years, nearly everyone has a video camera on hand at all times.  It is no accident that in the Boston case, numerous people shared their personal photos of the event with law enforcement in an effort to pinpoint the perpetrators.  Gary Kessler, writing on that topic, asks:  “Were these people violating the rights of others by sharing their pictures? Well, no, considering that the Bill of Rights was intended to protect us against a tyrannical government rather than from each other.”  Moreover, we have no reasonable expectation of privacy in public spaces, so there is no law against strangers taking pictures of other people in public (just ask any celebrity).

Mr. Kessler closes with this insight, which Mr. Richards might consider in his arguments against surveillance and the abuse of it:

“Your personal privacy has more to fear from the likes of Facebook and Google than from the government. Commercial entities such as social media sites offer free services and yet make money… We, our information, have become their commodity. They have more money, motivation and resources to use our collected information for their own purposes than the government does.”