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Jewish World Review March 20, 2002 / 7 Nisan, 5762

Joel Mowbray

Joel Mobray
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Consumer Reports

Government's "Candid Cameras" | Although police in the nation's capital recently turned off cameras that had been capturing the comings and goings of city residents, the public faces several long-term threats, not the least of which is the eventual loss of privacy.

Because the cameras can be turned back on at any time in the future, a whole generation of cops could become couch potato voyeurs participating in high-tech government stalking. Not only would be this an incredible waste of taxpayer resources, money that could be better spent putting officers on the beat, but it could also be rife with potential mischief.

In the wake of September 11th, the District's top cops sensed a political opening under the guise of safeguarding the nation's capital. With the continuing threat of terrorist actions, D.C.'s version of "spy TV" received lukewarm press, which is far better than the reaction would have been before tragedy struck last fall. If future use of the cameras garners favorable coverage, then it won't take long for other cities to start spying as well.

D.C. police officials deftly used 9/11 as the backdrop to justify their new endeavor, going so far as to claim their efforts were unavoidable. Stephen Gaffigan, who heads up the project, told the Wall Street Journal, "In the context of Sept. 11, we have no choice but to accept greater use of this technology." But D.C. police chief Charles Ramsey candidly admitted on CNN's Crossfire that the new surveillance efforts have "nothing to do with terrorism."

Despite talk of laying down ground rules and establishing clear policies to preclude abuse, D.C. police have a blank check to utilize the labyrinth of cameras as they see fit. So far, police claim to have used their Joint Operations Command Center only on special occasions, such as the terrorist activity warning issued last month by the Department of Justice.

Although D.C. police maintain that the cameras will only be activated to assist government agents in times of high alert, there is nothing to bind law enforcement to its promise. The D.C. city council never passed authorizing legislation to establish clear parameters of acceptable use. Local police in the nation's capital have plenary authority to flip the switch on the cameras on a whim if they so choose.

In limited circumstances and in response to a specific, tangible threat, keeping a watchful eye on sensitive areas is not particularly sinister, in and of itself. If the police had to convince a judge before each observation period, which could be done in mere minutes at any time of day, then the public might have some reassurance that D.C. won't become the city whose cameras never sleep. But there are no such checks in place.

Government can never be trusted to police abuse of its own power, and the police are no exception. This is not mere speculation in the current situation; traffic cameras are going to be used for snooping-a purpose well beyond the original scope. The trial run last month was limited to less than two dozen cameras located mostly at federal buildings-nothing terribly pernicious, but police officials already have plans to expand the surveillance program to include hundreds of cameras.

Police brass speak with reverent awe about Britain's truly Orwellian system, with over two million cameras crisscrossing the country. Ramsey and his minions lamely defend their program by noting that Brits don't seem to care about their privacy, so neither should we. But there's a reason our founding fathers waged war against the nation of bad teeth: Americans treasure freedom and liberty above all else, and Brits don't.

Given that D.C.'s system aspires to be like the more extensive one across the Atlantic, it's worth knowing whether or not millions of eyes in the sky have reduced crime. They haven't. Crime has actually gone up. The cameras have only succeeded in moving criminals away from the monitored areas.

Several cities in America have already tried and abandoned surveillance systems. New York kept close inspection on Times Square back in the 1970's, well before Rudy Guiliani cleaned it up with old-fashioned police work, and the 22-month experiment netted all of 10 bad guys. Detroit ditched its 15-year program in the mid-1990's because they determined it simply wasn't cost-effective to police thru voyeurism.

With upkeep and maintenance for hundreds of cameras, not to mention countless man-hours of cops parked in front of a TV screen instead of on the street, D.C. will likely run into the same financial morass as Detroit.

If D.C. police insist on running a surveillance program with no effective safeguards, the camera system could prove a very real threat to liberty-one that could spread to cities nationwide.

Comment on JWR contributor Joel Mowbray's column by clicking here.

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© 2002, Joel Mowbray