Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Who You Looking At?

I haven't done a lot of deep posting lately, so here's your chance -- nay, your privilege and opportunity -- to explore my mind...

Russ McBee has some thoughts regarding an ABC News Poll about how Americans feel about arbitrary video camera surveillance:
The question in the poll was worded this way:
Some people support the use of surveillance cameras in public places as a way to help solve crimes. Others say these cameras go too far as a government intrusion on personal privacy. What’s your opinion – do you support or oppose the increased use of surveillance cameras in public places?
Although I think the results may have been different if the question had consisted merely of the third sentence and omitted the first two, I find it shocking that 71 percent said they favored surveillance cameras, and only 25 percent were opposed.
I can understand his point, and I basically agree with the premise that the government has no business sticking a camera in my face, asking, "ARE YA GUILTY??? ARE YA??? HUH? HUH? NO? ok, nevermindmovealong....."

However, although I generally agree with his contentions, I'm not libertarian by any stretch of the imagination, and a few of his arguments strike me as...well, as a little paranoid....
Seventy-one percent of the American people apparently don't think the Fourth Amendment means anything, or that it was added for no good reason. Seventy-one percent of the American public has lost sight of the fact that unfettered police power not only can be abused, it will be abused. It's a metaphysical certainty that innocent people, minding their own business, would be tracked and monitored.
Ok, let's take a quick look at the Fourth Amendment:
Amendment IV

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
I really despise hyperbole. In this case, exaggerating both a problem, and the response to it. First of all, I don't believe being "secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects" applies to being videotaped in a public place. I know in my business, there are public events that have photos taken of various attendees. Normally in small, private situations such as inside the hospital photo releases would need to be obtained by all subjects of a photo before it could be published. But when you're outside at a public event, like a golf tournament or charity race, you have no expectation of identity privacy - anyone can see you, and anyone can take your picture when it's related to your attendance at the event. That way we don't have to get releases for 10,000 people downtown at a race. If you're walking down a public street, anyone can take your picture as long as they're not harassing you to get it - that's how paparazzi can take photos of celebrities. I may not like it, but I can't consider a video camera taping me coming out of Mast General in downtown Knoxville as removing the security of my person, house, paper or effects. Now, if the camera were capable to recording what I had in my pockets, my wallet, anything placed on my person with an expectation of privacy - that's different. But they can't and won't do that, so it doesn't apply.

Secondly, he says, "71% of Americans don't think the 4th Amendment means anything". Again, that's a huge exaggeration. Even allowing for a little bit of emphasis for effect, just because one person interprets the amendment one way, that doesn't mean I have to interpret it the same way. I think the 4th Amendment is extremely important - I just don't agree that I "don't feel it means anything" just because I differ in my interpretation.

And do people really consider video cameras on the street corners "unfettered police power"? Really? Unfettered? One would equate breaking down doors in the middle of the night, dragging off political dissenters while shooting their families to be the equivelant of monitoring for purse-snatchers and jaywalkers? If there's an argument that exists for equating the two examples of loss of civil liberties, I'd like to hear it.
Being free from unwarranted search is fundamental to the American notion of liberty. Surrendering our privacy to police cameras would be no different from allowing police to stop people randomly on the street and demand to see their papers.
Again, I don't see random videoing to be the equivalent of stopping and asking for papers. Asking for papers is a way for the police determining if you, Joe Innocent, has the right to be doing what you're doing and to be where you are, and that you are indeed who you say you are. It also actively disrupts your life. Being videoed merely records your presence, to be compared to known criminals. While neither may be wanted or entirely private, they are not the equivalent of the other.
We decided collectively a long time ago that the police may not search us without a good reason to do so. Blanket surveillance, whether instigated by the White House or by local authorities, is anathema to our history and our values.

Liberty cannot exist without a fundamental right to privacy, even when walking down the street.
Again, I don't think being videotapes means being searched. The items that the public cannot see when walking down the street, from papers to wallets to the insides of purses to pockets, remain undetected even with the most sophisticated cameras. When actively searched by police or asked for "papers", then the 4th amendment would apply. (Now, if they do develop and utilize cameras that can videotape what's in my pockets or my wallet, then we have a mighty big problem. Also a fun toy at frat parties.)

Bottom line: you have a right to privacy, except for that which you willfully give up when going out in public. When in public, you are who you are and that face you choose show to the outside world is public property. Having it videotaped, while not the best answer in the world, is certainly not the same as giving up your privacy.

This kind of hyperbole is not helpful to win others to a cause. Careful presentation of the facts and not exaggeration are better at making a case.

1 comment:

  1. Barry,

    I have to disagree with your assertion that it's hyperbolic of me to describe warrantless surveillance as a breach of the Fourth Amendment.

    Warrantless surveillance (whether undertaken by video cameras or by eavesdropping on the phone network and Internet) is offensive to any definition of privacy, no matter where it occurs. The act of merely walking down a public sidewalk does not negate protection from blanket surveillance, just as the act of using the (more or less) public portions of the phone network and Internet does not surrender the privacy inherent in your personal communications.

    Certainly, if a person does something criminal in the line of sight of the police, the cops have a duty and a right to intervene. That's not the same thing as blanket, warrantless surveillance. You know, "reasonable suspicion" and all that.

    It really comes down to the distinction between a paranoid society and a free one. We can't have both.

    For example, over the last twenty years, the UK has installed 4.2 million CCTV cameras around the country; each person in the UK is photographed an average of 300 times per day. It's hardly hyperbole to suggest that such surveillance is incompatible with privacy, and it's hardly hyperbole to suggest that data gathered in such a way would not be abused. One particularly silly (but pertinent) example is here.

    (As an aside, I find it endlessly ironic that Orwell's former flat in London is currently within eyeshot of no less than 32 surveillance cameras.)

    The advent of face-recognition software makes the erosion of privacy even harder to defend, since the collation of faces to names (and therefore other data) is obviously a kind of warrantless "search."

    The counter examples you cite all avoid the issue of blanket surveillance by law enforcement, which is the main concern I have with the technique. I'm not all that concerned by CCTV cameras in commercial establishments, but I'm certainly concerned by the blanket surveillance of an entire population by the police. I don't think the two can be readily compared, since the police would have access to all those video streams in one, easily collated location.

    And, I'm hardly a libertarian. ;-)

    I appreciate the critique.