Last week’s Boston Marathon bombing has brought the debate about the use and proliferation of security cameras for crime prevention and investigation, and the related privacy issues, to a new apex. It's a debate that needs to be reopened in Columbia.
I was amazed at the swiftness of identifying the Tsarnaev brothers as the potential bombers, as I am sure you were. The short but lively debate on talk radio of whether the FBI and Homeland Security should have made the photos of the “persons of interest” public is now moot. The pictures went up, a large number of individuals identified the men and the manhunt became focused. We know the rest of the story — at least to date.
The security camera question has hit the ground running and not just in the U.S. — Germany has reopened the issue, as has France and London, the most video surveilled city on the planet. Commentary in Politico, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, GeekWire.com and other publications are asking the same questions.
Should there be more surveillance cameras? Less? No change?
Does the threat to personal privacy by surveillance cameras (and for that matter drones, those remote-controlled surveillance aircraft) outweigh the security of our citizens and guests, our cities, states and nation?
Are the cameras situated in locations where they would do the most good?
Finally, at least for this essay, is personal privacy a myth?
Although Boston has a reported 650 security cameras used by the police and the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MTA or “The T”), it was a camera on a Lord & Taylor, on Boylston Street, that provided the first clues to the identity of the bombers. It was the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of pictures and videos from individuals at the finish line that helped identify the initial connection between the man in the black hat and the man in the white hat.
Columbia’s own debate began with the June 6, 2009, beating of Adam Taylor in the Cherry Street parking garage, an incident caught on security cameras. The images of “Knockout King” were aired on television stations and the Internet over and over again. The gang of five, ranging in age from 13 to 19, were identified by the public and arrested two days later.
In Columbia and Boston the cameras did exactly what they were supposed to do: assist in the prompt identification of the criminals and terrorists. But it was not just the cameras. It took the public’s help, the real eyes and ears of national security and public safety, to give names to the images.
Columbia’s own security camera advocacy group, Keep Columbia Safe, worked hard to give the CPD the authority to place and use security cameras in downtown Columbia. Section 24-29a through 33 was added to our city ordinances by public vote.
Relying on security cameras is really a hit-or-miss proposition, solely dependent on three important factors — where, when and availability. As we have seen from the recent multitude of Columbia shooting and home invasion incidents, outside of downtown, the mall, commercial facilities and shopping centers, security cameras are few, rare or simply nonexistent. As rare or nonexistent are the individuals who are willing to talk to the police, mostly out of fear and retaliation.
As the Tsarnaev brothers discovered, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy when "out in public." The thought that cameras are "everywhere" is a myth. The city is mostly blind.
As we all have come to realize, it was the human factor that was the final key to solving both crimes. Too often I hear a spokesperson for the Columbia police say that they are receiving no help from the public, from those who witnessed the crime or who recognize the offenders.
“Maybe if a camera recorded the incident?” is not the right question. It is “How do we make witnesses feel safe to speak up?”
While public and private security cameras have minimal effect deterring crime, they do aid in the capture of criminals. Do we need city/county/state-owned security cameras in high-crime residential neighborhoods? Does this advantage outweigh our expectations to privacy? Is there an expectation of privacy?
Some of those cameras already exist. Just look up the next time you stop at a traffic signal. See the camera above or next to the traffic signal? Smile. Have George Orwell’s “1984” and “Big Brother” finally reached fruition?
This conversation must take place and the floor is now open.