Monday, September 17, 2007

"Under the Watchful Eye" (An ACLU Report)

In "Spies Like Them," highwayscribery promised to read for you, the highwayscribery nation, a recent ACLU of San Diego-Imperial Counties study on government's increasing use of surveillance cameras to monitor the goings-on in public spaces and to report back.

Mission accomplished:

Orwell got the date wrong, but the cameras are here now and more sinister technologies on the way.

The result, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties, “is a dramatic expansion of government video surveillance of public space at the local level.”

That’s longhand for, “You’re being watched when you’re out in the street.”

The report, “Under the Watchful Eye,” included a survey of 131 communities nationwide that have employed cameras in their parks, streets, and other public meeting places while also taking the temperature in Great Britain where they’ve gone hells-bells for the new surveillance technology.

The report concludes that, “Video surveillance systems are proliferating despite the fact that they infringe on the freedom of speech and association guaranteed by the First Amendment and threaten the anonymity and privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment and state constitutions.”

The idea of video surveillance is noxious to civil libertarians, but coupled with the application of other, newfangled toys coming down the pike, it becomes downright poisonous.

That’s because the repressive impact multiplies when government combines cameras with emerging technologies such as automated identification software, face and eye scans, radio frequency identification tags (RFID), and databases at the fingertips of law enforcement.

For example, by combining video footage with face recognition software, enforcement gremlins can quickly identify people simply strolling down the street or up to political mischief, such as demonstrating.

Because an iris is as unique as a fingerprint, the same goes for eye-scanning technology.

If, (when?) RFID tags are embedded in identity cards, and machines that read integrated into surveillance cameras, “government would be able to collect and compile an immense amount of information about individuals and their private lives,” the ACLU observed.

The Man does not have digital photographs and “biometric” information on file for most people, but he wants it and passage of the nefarious Real ID Act last year will help him get it. The report urges pressure from the states and civil liberties groups in an effort to stop the federal government from taking another step towards Orwell’s nightmare.

Otherwise, they will have profiles not just on criminals and “suspected terrorists” (the great bugaboo of the nascent century), but regular and abnormal folks just like you, too.

What kind of information? Well, it might include, “your motor vehicle records, police records, employment history, DNA and drug testing records, and you and your family’s travel and buying habits.”

That’s long-hand for, “Your closet and all its skeletons.”

Lawmakers' response to this expansion of government capacity for obtaining, sifting through and archiving the days of your lives has been wan at best. Consequently, the courts’ view of privacy protections in public settings have no legal basis to expand and keep the snoops away.

Okay, you’re American, you were born within the past 25 years and not exactly fed on a civil libertarian diet of ideas from on high. You live in a culture of violence on television and a reality of violence in the street. You’re saying, “Hey, if someone’s behaving well, then they don’t have to worry about being watched.”

Oh, you poor product of the fading conservative era!

Sad reality, this business of having to inform you that, “People have a right not only to engage in speech and protest on public streets, but also to do so anonymously so that they can speak without fear of reprisal from the government. This right to anonymity, or namelessness, is necessarily tied to privacy” (quote the report).

Think of doing and saying and doing some of things you say and do over the Internet without that catchy handle in lieu of your real name. That keeps you anonymous, or so you hope; assured that if someone were watching, your cyber-life might be radically different.

“Installing cameras in public spaces is tantamount to requiring people to identify themselves whenever they walk, speak, or meet in public,” said the report.

And it goes on to point out how Fourth Amendment establishes a zone of control around our bodies and possessions. To transgress this zone, the government has to demonstrate there is a reasonable cause to expect some hijinks. The zone extends beyond the front door of our dwelling, literally following us as we traipse through the public scene.

Now we know you were reading your handy copy of the Constitution just last night, but in case you were drinking at the time, here’s a refresher on what The Founding Fathers Fourth Gift says: “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 person or things to be seized.”

At least some sitting on the nation’s highest court get the message. Here’s Justice John Paul Stephens asserting that, “the decision in favor of anonymity is motivated by fear of economic or official retaliation, by concern about social ostracism, or merely by a desire to preserve as much one’s privacy as is an aspect of freedom of speech protected by the Fourth Amendment.”

If all the high-flown rhetoric about liberty and freedom (who needs em?!) doesn't get your goat, here's a more pedestrian concern to mull...

...The damn things don’t really do what they’re supposed to.

A 1999 study by the Scottish Central Research Unit did a before-and-after analysis of surveillance apparatus in Glasgow, Scotland and found reductions in crime “no more significant than those in control areas without the camera locations.”

For those of you who forgot their Psych 101, "control" gruops or areas are the "regular" set-ups by which you compare results with the experimental group (or area).

The British Home Office weighed data from 18 jurisdictions, found some improvement in parking garages, but ultimately concluded that closed circuit television monitoring, “led to negligible reduction in crime of about 2 percent in the experimental areas compared with the control areas.”

They found that people who were aware of the cameras actually were more freaked out about the possibility of being a crime victim, which is not good when you consider that, in London, the average person is now captured on video camera 300 times a day.


In one U.S. study, robbers themselves claimed that cameras and videos aren’t effective and don’t keep them from robbing, and we know this because the nightly news in the U.S. often shows us robberies, murders even, caught on video tape, typically in liquor or convenience stores.

Another study in Cincinnati, Ohio found that the city’s program merely shifted crime beyond the view of the cameras.

But 9/11 paranoia rules public discourse and incompetence personified in the president himself drives public policy, so they’re going in for the new technology without understanding its far-reaching impacts.

The report found that municipalities actively monitoring surveillance footage have done little or nothing to determine its effectiveness nor compared benefits against other programs and approaches.

Of course, even if the cameras don’t protect the populace, they serve other myriad and intrusive goals of the security apparatus not usually cited as the rationale for their application.

In the end it’s just more bad public policy. Amost anywhere else, some kind of means-testing would be required. But here, where reaction rules, cameras, like big border fences, triumph for simply sounding like good ideas.

While he was Mayor of Oakland, current State Attorney General Jerry Brown rejected the use of surveillance cameras, arguing that, “Reducing crime is something the community and police must work on together. Installing a few or a few dozen surveillance cameras will not make us safe. It should also not be forgotten that the intrusive powers of the state are growing with each passing decade.”

Let’s see if having him in the legal drivers seat serves to protect California’s from the creeping hand of the security state.

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