Look Closer


Max Borders attempts a defense of public surveillance cameras over at TechCentralStation, but it seems weirdly detached from the actual debate over such cameras. It begins with the observation that people are already observed in public places all the time, as by cops. Which would be a decent starting point if nobody had written on this topic ever before. But it's scarcely as though it's never occurred to camera opponents to address such an obvious point: Their invariable rejoinder—as, for instance, in this essay by Lawrence Lessig [PDF]—is that there's a qualitative difference between transitory observation by dispersed individuals and a permanent, searchable database of all one's activities in public space. The better analogy here isn't the cop glancing over his cruller, but someone engaged in the kind of obsessive, constant observation that, were it actually carried out physically, would probably fall under at least some states' anti-stalking laws. We can still argue over the extent to which, if surveillance is restricted to public space, this constitutes invasion of privacy. But if you're not responding to that argument, you're not engaged in the actual debate.

That out of the way, Borders suggests it's all about efficacy. But again, he doesn't seem to have thought it necessary to inquire whether anyone else had ever written anything on this topic before. Thing is, the evidence we do have based on case studies in Britain and Australia suggests that closed-circuit surveillance provides a (potentially dangerous in itself) sense of security, though there's no basis for the conclusion that they do much to actually reduce crime.

I'm open to persuasion on this question, but it seems as though if you're going to attempt a response to skeptics of surveillance cameras, a good way to begin might be by figuring out who those skeptics are and what arguments they actually make.