Sunday, July 31, 2005

Privacy in a Public Space

After the prominent role that surveillance cameras played in getting pictures of the terrorists responsible for the attacks on London, many people are asking if cameras are a good idea or if the price of invasion of privacy is too high. We forget that privacy in a public space is a new concept.

[old man voice]Back in the good old days,[/old man voice] when you knew your neighbors and your neighbors knew you and the local cops knew all the troublemakers, the only way to have privacy in a public space was if no one else was there. Otherwise, people you knew would see and recognize you, making you far less likely to do something regretful like steal a purse or dance a jig. There is a reason that the stereotypical small-town resident is suspicious of out-of-towners – they are used to knowing quite a bit about the people around them. Someone they don’t know is going to stand out. As opposed to larger communities and cities where the people you do know will stand out.

These days, it’s much easier to just get lost in a crowd. Even when you are surrounded by hundreds of people, in all likelihood, no one will notice you. Being anonymous often emboldens people to do things they might not do otherwise. Cameras now do what your neighbors use to – they recognize you.

The fear of these cameras, I think, comes partially from the centralization. It’s one thing for the guy at the 711 to have footage of you walking into his store (he saw you there anyway, right?). It’s another for the government to have footage from 200 cameras of you driving around town or walking down the street, no matter where you are within the camera’s network. But I am far more concerned about my credit being kept in a central database (or even two or three central databases) than I am about pictures of me and 5 million of my closest friends going to the mall being centralized. If someone wants to stalk me, there are far more efficient ways than breaking into the camera network. The camera records are not organized by who is in the frame. They are organized by location. When they start to organize by who is in the frame, I will then start to worry, because the purpose has changed from monitoring locations to monitoring individuals. (It’s different, by the way, for the cameras to recognize suspects and known criminals, because that’s what a cop would do if he were there. Tracking every citizen is impractical and goes outside the usual duties of law enforcement.)

My biggest problem with privacy these days is the lack of individual accountability. Organizations that have no vested interest in your well being have all kinds of information about you that you would never think of giving to a total stranger. If you find out that a company gave your phone number to a telemarketer (if you can even trace who gave your number to that telemarketer), you can’t call them up and say “Hey! What’d you do that for? That’s not nice!” And even if you do, they’ll spew something about privacy policies which default to “sell your information as we darn well please!” You should have opted out! Shouldn’t the default be “don’t sell my info”? Imagine if one of your friends had given your number to that telemarketer. Would you let them get away with that?

So, really, when it comes to privacy, a permanent record of my presence in a public place is far less disturbing to me than a lot of what already goes on. In my mind, cameras in public places don’t inherently take away any freedoms that I have (unlike having my pocket knife confiscated at the airport so I can no longer defend myself against hijackers who are bigger and stronger than me), but it does increase the ability to solve crimes after they have happened. The cameras could be abused if the government, say, used them to track down and arrest everyone who showed up to a protest. But that’s a violation of the constitutional right to assembly and free speech, so we’ll have much bigger problems if it comes to that.


Blogger Christiana said...

That's pretty much how I've always felt as well. Of course, we need to take steps to prevent the images being abused, (No selling images to private companies for example) but beyond that, I'm not convinced that the cameras are really such a big violation. What is it, exactly, that people are worried will happen?

8/01/2005 9:26 AM  
Blogger Mikey said...

Wow - you're blog is full of good info. It's getting hard to find blogs with useful content and people talking about surveillance cameras these days. I have just started my Latest surveillance cameras news blog and would really appreciate you coming by - thanks again

10/07/2005 1:13 PM  

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