Theres No Privacy Interest in Public

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2006-04-03 Print this article Print

Opinion: Surveillance cameras that monitor public places don't violate anyone's privacy because nobody has an expectation of privacy out on the street.

I get burned up when I see public surveillance cameras referred to with the term "Big Brother" as in this news story. Referring to cameras such as those described in the article in this way trivializes actual totalitarianism. I dont buy every factual claim in the story, but its clear that such cameras can do a lot of good, and they violate nobodys rights. Theres an important characteristic of these cameras when theyre done right: They only monitor public places, such as a street or a park. Yes, its possible to make cameras that observe private places, but thats not whats usually done, and its not what the whole idea is.

1984, on the other hand, describes a society in which the observation is constant and ever-present. On the street, at work, in your bedroom, wherever you may go, Big Brother was watching. Theres a really important difference here blithely ignored by those who abuse the image of Big Brother.

If you find a public surveillance camera objectionable, ask yourself this: Would you object to having a police officer standing in the same spot, just looking at the scene? The way I see it, at any one point in time they are exactly the same thing. I want you all to tell me: What right of yours is being violated by being observed in public by a camera?

If you do object to having a police office there then at least youre consistent, but your position is probably a radical one not shared by most law-abiding citizens. I have no doubt that the residents of Lenox Avenue in East Orange, N.J., just a couple of towns away from where I live, wish there were police on their street 24 hours a day, and it wouldnt bother me in my own neighborhood. If you dont object to an actual police officer, then what are the differences? The camera is operating continuously, as opposed to a human, whose attention can be broken. Ive heard assertions that cameras dont work, that they just move the crime elsewhere. The camera system can keep a record of the video. Then theres just the whole "inhuman" thing.

That the camera is more efficient than a human is just another example of technology improving the work of people, in this case police officers. Its one thing to oppose police abuse, its another to oppose police efficiency.

Next Page: Are they effective?

Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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