Theres No Privacy Interest in Public

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2006-04-03

Theres No Privacy Interest in Public

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?

Are They Effective


Do cameras just move the crime elsewhere? If they do, then so do increased police patrols, which are usually temporary.

In one sense the question is beside the point; if crime in the area of the cameras is decreased, then their goals have been met at least to some degree.

And if there is more crime elsewhere, then maybe that area needs cameras, too. Its not like youll need them everywhere.

Is it bad that the police can keep archived video? There are certainly arguments why it can be good.

It can be useful for things as innocent as traffic studies. And heres something to consider: If you were accused of a crime and could have either a video record in evidence against you or the testimony of a witness, which would you choose? I bet it mostly depends on whether youre guilty.

This raises the question of the integrity of the video itself. Is it possible to manipulate it?

Anyone who has seen Forrest Gump knows that its possible to modify video. Im willing to bet its possible to create a system to demonstrate integrity.

As far as Im concerned, if the cameras are of public places, then the same images the police see should go out to whoever wants them through the Internet.

Then third parties can maintain their own archives in order to test the police version. Storage is cheap.

Camera opponents have also told me stories of police abusing information they get from camera surveillance, like looking for pretty women and looking up their license plates.

This would be abusive, of course, just as it would be abusive for the police to capriciously look up a license plate observed with their own eyes.

Like any police tool (how about guns for an example?) cameras can be abused, and there need to be administrative rules and laws to make sure police use them correctly. But the correct use of them is no more abusive than normal police work.

I think the fact that cameras are machines rubs many people the wrong way and they react in a way that is visceral and irrational.

Im reminded of Anthony Quinns character in Lawrence of Arabia, who destroys a camera used to take his picture because he fears that his soul has been captured. Most of the arguments I hear from camera opponents make no more sense than this.

Law and order wont bring East Orange back to its glory days, which were actually more glorious than the Reuters article let on.

Like the cop on every corner that the city cant afford, it can deter and punish crime and let decent law-abiding people live their lives, free to enjoy the privacy of their homes and the safety of the streets.

This may be a dystopia to some people, but I bet the citizens of East Orange would prefer it to lawlessness.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. He can be reached at

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