Politics and Technology.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

British style CCTV systems in the US

The recent attacks in Britain and the manner in which suspects were quickly rounded up, brought the attention of some news outlets to the UK's wide use of CCTV. I've seen some media exposure given to the question of not only whether the US should adopt a similar system but if such a measure would even be constitutional.

Let's set aside all arguments first as to whether the CCTV system was useful to the speedy apprehension of the suspected bombers. I can't foresee any reasonable argument to the contrary. Due to SCORES of years dealing with terrorism associated with the effort to unite Ireland, Britain seems to have very valuable experience in using law enforcement as a tool against terrorism. The CCTV system is but one consequence of this experience.

Concerns for a British style CCTV system on this side of the pond revolve around whether it would be a violation of American civil liberties. Indeed, this is a very valid concern.

Though I may not agree that a CCTV system that watches all public areas is a terrible intrusion into our right to privacy (a right interpreted by the Supreme Court as enshrined in the First Amendment, and therefore framed and even trumped by it), I in principle would not want a government bureaucrat overseeing such as system, especially with my tax dollars.

Could there be a way to have an effective CCTV system to aid law enforcement that would satisfy civil libertarians and fiscal conservatives? Possibly.

Today, there are cameras all over this nation; they are in ATM's, overseeing car lots, monitoring office buildings, in supermarkets, in malls and even private web cams. Often, law enforcement will ask for access to recorded tapes or even subpoena to have such access when investigating crimes.

Though these cameras are unconnected and, compared to the UK system, sparse, they are very useful to law enforcement. Imagine their usefulness with a system in place to expedite access to their content.

In this system, private owners of CCTV could work to link their content. Sophisticated software already exists that can cull license plate (sorry, in Jersey they're plates, not tags) numbers automatically. Is it hard to imagine software in the near future that can be given fuzzier directives like "find a white male, late 30's, in a red shirt?" In the search of suspects over a wide area, either by request of the police or maybe even the victim themselves, this could be a powerful tool.

What would be the incentive to be a part of such a network? Perhaps there would be an advertising advantage. Wouldn't a car dealer want to proudly proclaim their social conscience in being a part of a system that helped recover X number of abducted children per year? As with many things, the more popular this system would become, the more powerful it would be.

This system would have to be funded by its participants, so this "advertisement campaign" isn't free. The power of this "endorsement" would have to outweigh its cost to the participants. This is a deep flaw in my concept.

The advantage of this system goes beyond just the fiscal. It would also tussle less feathers by demonstrating that the government is not in control of this system and therefore it is not the government that would "violate" people's rights to privacy. Less people would object and more people would support such a system.

But as with all "majority rule" decisions, that doesn't make it automatically morale or right. The argument would still remain that peoples' rights to privacy were being violated.

This is where I remind myself that the right to privacy is not enumerated, but framed by the First Amendment. I agree that the reasonable expectation of privacy has its limitations when you step out your door and walk down the street.

There should be no difference between a human being staring at me from across the street and a web cam perched on a roof down the block tracking me. I'm not uncomfortable with either. If that creepy guy stood in my bushes to look in my window, or that web cam was behind a hole in a ceiling tile in a bathroom, then there would be hell to pay.

Tying together ATM and convenience store cameras is not such a strong intrusion into our lives such that I would object to such a scheme.

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