The popular wisdom these days is that anything goes so long as it can be remotely justified in the name of security. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the move to keep the public under the watchful eyes of surveillance cameras.
A Zogby poll released in December found that, in the name of fighting terrorism, Americans were willing to give the police access to every facet of their lives, including mail, telephone conversations and the contents of their cars. Seemingly, much of the population had come to fear that Osama bin Laden lurked in the sock drawer.
The highest percentage approval — 80 percent — came for plans to put public places under constant video surveillance.
Not so long ago, that was a controversial idea. While Britons have seemingly embraced the never-blinking eyes of police cameras on their streets, pre-attack Americans were less fond of the notion. A test installation of such cameras in Tampa's Ybor City, a night-life area troubled by crime, divided locals between those who saw the cameras as tools against thugs, and those who feared invasions of privacy.
But concerns over privacy invasions no longer carry much weight. After the attacks, some opponents of surveillance cameras switched sides, with Virginia Beach and Toronto announcing plans to focus lenses on their own public places, and several airports following suit.
Those new converts to the cause of "security" may have switched sides too soon. Modern surveillance cameras aren't just monitored by bored policemen — they're often connected to computer software that's supposed to "recognize" faces stored in databases of criminal suspects. An ACLU study of Tampa's experience with the technology found that "the system made many false matches between people photographed by police video cameras … and photographs in the department's database of criminals, sex offenders, and runaways."
That shouldn't be a surprise. Reportedly, in a 2000 U.S. Defense Department test of face-recognition products, the best false-detection rate found was 33 percent.
After a series of false identifications without even a single real suspect being nabbed, Tampa officials temporarily suspended use of the cameras.
Of course, face-recognition software will be refined — perhaps to the point where false identification is no longer a concern. But will that really be an improvement?
The Cato Institute's Lucas Mast recently warned that, "the problem is not with the technology itself but with the people who control it."
When perfected, the power to automatically pick faces from crowds and match them with names will be potentially enormous. While cameras are supposed to be used to identify wanted criminals and terrorists, anybody's identity could be entered into the databases — for good reasons or bad.
Assuming that the technology will be used, Mast calls for "guidelines to limit government's exploitation of the technology, particularly with respect to halting impulses to broaden surveillance against ordinary individuals."
Surveillance cameras don't just raise concerns when they're focused on faces; they've sparked lawsuits and even civil disobedience when the subjects of their scrutiny are automobiles.
Arguing that traffic scofflaws are a public menace, San Diego officials were among the first to install cameras that photographed the license numbers of vehicles that ran red lights.
That was the idea, anyway. Critics pointed out that the money brought in by automated cameras created an incentive to issue flurries of tickets — justified or not. They also warned that officials reviewing the photos had enormous leeway and access to the identities of drivers photographed going about their business. Photos of some prominent politicians speeding through red lights were ignored, while private citizens received no mercy.
A judge took a dim view of the scheme and threw out hundreds of tickets, saying that the system was "untrustworthy and unreliable."
Untrustworthy sounds about right. Washington, D.C., police have issued tickets to people whose vehicles don't even resemble the cars captured by traffic cameras. In violation of rules, clerks often guess at license plate numbers when images aren't entirely clear.
People on the receiving end of such treatment either pay fraudulent tickets or else suffer grueling tours through the appeals process.
Intrusive and abusive surveillance cameras have sparked repeated protests. Demonstrators stage pro-privacy plays before the cameras, and create Web sites mapping their locations. One — iSee — even charts routes around surveillance cameras.
In open revolt, Hawaiian drivers have purchased covers that obscure their plates, thrown trash at traffic cameras, and relayed the devices' locations through calls to radio talk shows. In response, legislators are discussing removing the cameras, or at least reforming the way in which they're used.
Of course, those Americans who believe that security is worth a little loss of privacy may remain unimpressed by protesters and surveillance saboteurs. Isn't the government trying to protect us from terrorism, crime and loss of life?
Maybe that's true — if surveillance systems work as advertised, and if the information collected on people's movements through camera lenses is used only to defend, not to control. Is that a gamble we're willing to take?
A government that can identify our faces in a crowd, match them to our names, and pull up lists of roads on which we've driven is a government that may be able to offer us greater protection against the dangers that world has to offer. It may also be a government that becomes one of those dangers.
— Arizona Daily Sun