Monday, July 30, 2007

Cancel "Big Brother"

Image courtesy of Surveillance Camera Players

"It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time...You had to live -- did live, from habit that became instinct -- in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized."

- George Orwell, 1984

Undoubtedly it's a little cliché and over-the-top to go running to Orwell's 1984 every time the issue of intrusive government monitoring comes about. But, hey, if the shoe fits...

A poll released yesterday shows that Americans support the increased use of public surveillance cameras by a nearly 3-to-1 margin. This disturbing data, if the poll is to be believed, shows that people are fast losing their appreciation for individual privacy.

The standard argument I hear--even from my mom--is that if you're not doing anything wrong, then what harm is there if you are being watched? Well, you might not feel so comfortable if you knew that your every movement and every interaction was being recorded and stored, perhaps in perpetuity, and you couldn't be sure who was using that information and in what way. If you're not worried about abuses from the people currently collecting the info, what about those whose hands it could fall into at any point in the future?

"It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself—anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face… was itself a punishable offense. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime…"

Admittedly, for the moment this sounds fantastical and paranoid, but since my aim is to caution about potential misuse, let me clarify two things:

First, I promise I'm not one of those privacy wieners that whine about everything. You could find out a great deal about me through Google and Facebook and this blog and myriad other sources, all of which I'm aware markedly decrease my own privacy. My very use of such sources decreases my own expectations of privacy, as would the increased use of surveillance cameras. But the latter is not something I'm entering into voluntarily and is something I feel much less comfortable with.

Second, this isn't some far-off, "someday the robots will turn against us issue". Such a system already exists in central London (the "ring of steel"), and a similar setup is currently being installed in New York City. There are already plans to expand the system to other major American cities.

For some reason, I don't hear too many people bring up the obvious folly of such a public surveillance system. Namely, that roadside cameras don't prevent crime, they relocate it. Obviously then, if criminals aren't plotting and executing crimes out in the open, they'll do so elsewhere. Do we then stick cameras in every workplace, every restaurant and movie theater, and finally, in every home? I see people being a lot more uncomfortable (I hope) with the implications of a surveillance system if they think it through.

Our society is predicated on a guarantee of the individual's rights, perhaps foremost among those being his freedom from unnecessarily being interfered with by the government. Before everyone decides to pursue security at any cost, we should all carefully consider the value of what we're giving up.

4 comments:

Dan said...

Sometimes I wonder how many more freaks need to take pictures of women's breasts out on the street and post them on the internet (not that i frequent such websites) before people realize that they don't want to be watched all the time.

Also I think some people have the illusion that these cameras and law enforcement already know who the criminals are and will only monitor them.

Hafiz said...

Well, for once I agree with you Jay. Tell people to watch Enemy of the State and they'll see the point.

Andrew said...

I think there's an important difference between public cameras and cameras in restaurants and homes: You're already in public. Anyone in the area (and you really can't always know who's in the area) can already watch you. That said, I mostly agree with you, not necessarily because I think it'll have a particular effect on my life, but because it's just plain CREEPY.

Phil said...

We were discussing this topic in my technology and writing seminar last semester and I came to the realization that there isn't some fundamental essence to privacy--no logical reason we need it. That's why it's not in the Constitution, and it just hit me that it's sort of a cultural phenomenon here. What consequence are you worried about for any activity on the street that's legal or mostly legal?

Don't worry, this is just a thought experiment and I'm not fighting to take away your rights. But just for a moment think about what we can gain when we cast privacy aside--completely. You mentioned you wonder what some schmuck would do with knowledge of your once-private doings, but he has no privacy either! It could be much more of an even playing field than you're thinking.

Another benefit I could see in throwing our privacy out the window is that outdated and ridiculous laws would need to be rethought. If everyone who sped got a ticket (because everyone else knows you were speeding because there's no privacy!) then don't you think the speed limits would change to be more acceptable, and what is de juro can really be de facto?

Having said all that, when I read your post I did find one "use" for privacy. If it's just the government who gets to spy on us, and they're deluded enough to strive for a single-minded nation, our more explicit Constitutional rights like free speech might be eroded over time. Having privacy out of the way just makes that erosion a little easier. Hmm... I think as long as we criminalize plotting against the government *only* when it's done outside the established political system (i.e. terrorism?) I think we'll be OK.

What's your response? I'm not fully convinced of this reasoning myself, so I'd love to hear what you think.