Published October 01, 2007
A couple of weeks ago they put in a stoplight where our street meets the new highway that goes by our neighborhood. No one asked our neighborhood association. No one felt the need to poll the population. It certainly wasn't put to a vote or even brought up at a planning association meeting. Just as a matter of course that new stoplight included a set of video cameras covering all approaches to the intersection.
Now when my neighbors go to work in the morning and come home at night, some faceless bureaucrat in a gray suit has access to a video record of their comings and goings. Admittedly that information isn't a lot of use, unless you want to do something like send marshals out to search their house while they're gone, or make sure they're home when you serve a warrant. For that matter, a corrupt peon working for some video monitoring contractor could use that video to figure out when to send his cousin the burglar to stop by and pick up your new home theater system when you're not home. Or if they're so inclined they can see if you've got your mistress in your passenger seat instead of your wife.
The arrival of big brother's little electronic eyes in our exurban community is troubling, but discomfited though we may be by the possibilities, our woes are just the tip of the surveillance iceberg, which is on display in all its scary grandeur in Chicago.
Under the impressive name Operation Virtual Shield, a new software system commissioned for the Chicago police department and based on technology from IBM will allow them to tie together all of the public and private video cameras in the city, plus hundreds of new cameras which they are installing and run the data through a processing program which will identify potential crimes and suspicious activity and alert a human observer. This is very much like the data mining of phone calls which has drawn criticism for the NSA, but instead of sorting through the words of a conversation the computer will sort through people's actions. Combined with technology like face recognition software this will allow the police to keep track of individuals and their actions extremely effectively and as the network expands they will be able to track suspects and know their every action, or identify potential suspects based on their actions and pursue them electronically.
Tony Ruiz of the city's Office of Emergency Management and Communications explained that "Mayor Richard M. Daley has had, for many years, a grand plan to incorporate cameras from public entities and private sector businesses into a single unified system allowing first responders access to real time visual data."
This sounds great when it's all about preventing crime, but what happens when the people running the program decide to broaden the definition of crime or misapply the system for political or personal purposes? Remember, this system is in the hands of a city run by the Daley political machine and they're not exactly known for their political scruples. A system like this could be used to dig up dirt on political opponents or to intrude on the privacy of ordinary citizens for any of a number of reasons, some of which may sound legitimate, but all of which involve a fundamental violation of privacy rights under the 4th Amendment to the Constitution.
Everyone's complaining about President Bush's overreaching warrantless surveillance under the PATRIOT Act and the FISA program, but those surveillance programs have been used to monitor the actions of a tiny number of people under very special and limited circumstances. Under the administration of the oldest and most powerful Democratic party machine in the country, the Chicago police are setting up a surveillance network which will monitor the actions of virtually every citizen in the city without the slightest hint of a warrant or anything resembling probable cause. They're just going to watch everyone all the time because they have the technology and they can do it.
Somewhere in all of this the Bill of Rights seems to have been forgotten. The privacy rights promised in the 4th Amendment have been qualified out of existence. The streets are public space and private businesses own the rights to their video and choose to cooperate with the program voluntarily. If the police wanted to set up video and audio surveillance on someone they'd need to get a warrant, but if the cameras are already there then all protections are out the window.
Years ago when I lived in the Soviet Union I learned to accept the fact that I had no real privacy, that there could be people watching me and listening to me even in the most apparently private and personal moments. It's a disturbing thought, but the truth is that you get used to it and learn to accept it. You operate on the assumption that your life is so mundane that it will likely put the watchers to sleep, plus you really don't have anything to hide. In that situation it was also very clear what you did and did not do and say. The KGB's interests were very limited and very specific.
The problem is that today the dividing line between normal activity and crime has become blurry. We've moved into an era of 'super crimes' with their names written in capital letters like the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, where even the erroneous impression of behavior associated with those high-concern crimes can land you in a lot of hot water. The pressure on law enforcement is intense and the result can be overreaction, like the recent case of the MIT student arrested at gunpoint at Logan Airport for wearing a peculiar homemade t-shirt.
More surveillance, even when computer assisted, means more opportunities to make a mistake or overreact or take something the wrong way. The car circling a building too many times, or the guy standing for too long on the wrong corner, or a bulgy jacket at a crowded event, or any of a hundred other things that raise a red flag and which people do for innocent reasons on a daily basis could lead to disaster. And that's just the mistakes. The potential for intentional abuse, or excessive enforcement or a self-righteous crackdown on trivial crimes is even more troubling. Even the possibility of our courts being clogged up with petty drug offenders and every prostitute and John on the streets is disturbing. [more]