Category Archives: Surveillance

Smile! You’re On Big Brother’s Camera

The bombing of the Boston Marathon has brought back into public attention the question of whether we ought to have cameras in public spaces. Mayor Bloomberg, for example, is in favor of cameras everywhere. Of course, given his attitude toward basic rights, it’s a safe bet to be in opposition to anything that he wants. The argument made by control freaks is that if you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t care if you’re being watched.


I’m not an exhibitionist. Whether I’m relieving myself in the jakes, enjoying someone’s company in the bedroom, or washing dishes in the kitchen, I want to decide who gets to watch–and perhaps sell tickets to, if you have a yearning to see me scrub a pan.

But that’s not what we’re talking about–at least not yet. For now, the debate focuses on activity in public. The Supreme Court tells us that we have a diminished right to privacy in public spaces. That seems reasonable, though I remain suspicious any time some branch of government lays out how much intrusion into our lives it will allow itself and others.

Consider this: Who is watching, what will be done about what is seen, and what kind of record will be made and how long it will be kept?

1. Who is watching?

If I watch you walking down the street, you may be annoyed by my attention, but there’s not much I can do just by watching. (We’ll get to keeping records in a bit.) By contrast, government has power that private citizens don’t have. The more the government knows, the more it can do. As we’ve seen too many times, governments that watch but aren’t watched–in other words, governments without accountability–go wrong in a hurry.

2. What will be done with what is seen?

Watching without a purpose isn’t going to happen. Governments don’t have money just to enjoy the view. Will what is seen be used as a way to work around having to obtain warrants? What methods of analysis will be used to draw conclusions about activities done in public? We’ve seen driving while black being treated as a criminal act. That’s an example of an innocent act can be taken as potentially unlawful by government observers. Add more and more cameras, and the chances for this kind of thing grow.

3. What kind of record will be made and how long will it be kept?

Recordings from the cameras theoretically could be kept forever–or at least until the digital file becomes excessively corrupt. Will those records be available to the person in the video? Since more than one person is likely to be on tape, can anyone come see the recordings? Will dossiers be compiled on every person or on some people regarded as suspicious by those in power? What oversight will monitor this?

Now come back to the question that I raised earlier. If you’re not doing something wrong, why would you object to being watched? All of us make minor errors or missteps. It’s human nature to see a blunder and make a broad statement about the person making it. That’s called a hasty generalization.

More than that, pick anything that you do. Someone will tell you that it’s wrong to do it or that you’re doing it in the wrong way. The more we are watched, the more times our actions will be called into question, often by people who have no business asking. We protect ourselves particularly from government by requiring those in power to work hard if they wish to hold us to account. Investigations and trials demand the painstaking gathering of evidence and reasoning. The more we do to make that process easy for the government, the more often we will have to defend ourselves.

Watching is an intrusive act. We tolerate it being done by others like us because most watchers are limited in what they can do with what they see. Government has many fewer practical limits. That being the case, we must impose as many legal limits as possible to remain free.