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.

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  1. I have always wondered why a surveillance camera is better than, say, a panic button? My alma matter didn’t use cameras, they had panic buttons all over campus, especially the parking lots, where the button would cause a siren to blare and an open communication line with campus security via the squawk box. Loud noises and open channels of communication with law enforcement are good deterrents over a silent camera and a good disguise. In addition, there is no right to privacy issue since no one is watching your every public move. People can defend themselves from crime without the eyes of big brother.

  2. If Borders couldn’t be bothered to learn the actual criticisms of opponents of the government’s NATIONAL “security” policy before attempting to refute them, why would he take any more trouble with criticisms of DOMESTIC “security” policy (incl. crime control)? Straw burns with such a pleasing, if brief, flame.


  4. What’s the astroturf angle on this one? TCS quickly goes non-libertatian when they have a product to sell or a protected market to defend.

  5. there’s a qualitative difference between transitory observation by dispersed individuals and a permanent, searchable database of all one’s activities in public space

    I hate the cameras, but I’m not so sure I agree with this statement. The difference seems quantitative to me, and that’s the crux of the problem. If the government has a right to know what’s happening in public spaces, that is consistent with the legal ability to monitor them with cameras. If the government doesn’t have the right to know what’s happening in public spaces, why should the highway patrol be allowed to patrol the highways looking for broken-down cars? Those are obviously on the opposite ends of the spectrum of police intrusion, but the spectrum itself seems continuous to me. You could cover the streets with cops with laptops and create the same effect the cameras have. Depending on where you live, if you’re a suspect, the police could follow your every public move, and even rummage through your trash for your DNA without probable cause. That’s more invasive than cameras.

    Reliance on qualitative differences is the idealist’s approach. If I’m allowed to do something a little, I should be allowed to do it a lot. The truth is, a realist compromise between the two ideals is necesaary. What’s left to fight is where on the quantitative scale to set the limits. I’d like to see those limits clearly defined by local governments.

  6. phocion,

    I think the difference between cops keeping their eyes open and a monitored closed circuit camera system may well be quantitative, but once the cameras begein recording, it becomes a difference in kind.

    Or not. Discuss.

  7. joe,

    Do you see a camera (which provides an objective documentary of events), as more invasive than an officer (whose recollection of events is possibly skewed by his or her personal biases)?

    If the issue is how far Big Brother’s eyes can see, is it worse for them to be attached to an electronic brain than one less reliable as an objective source? I’m not sure myself, especially as video footage could feasibly be edited and that edited footage presented as an unassailable source of information…

  8. I think the difference is qualitative. You are not being seen “more” so much as you are being seen “differently.” The stalker analogy is apt. If you are out running errands, you of course expect people to see you at the cleaners, the gas station, the grocery store. You are being observed all over the place. But if you start noticing the same dude (or cop) everywhere you go, watching you, then there is definitely a qualitative difference in how you are being observed.

    As for what benefit we get, well– the Atlanta courthouse killings recently are a pretty good example of how spectacularly such systems can fail, and that was in a very limited, well defined, high security area with dozens of cops only a few feet away. The guy proceeded, in front of cameras, to dispatch a deputy, free himself of restraints, take the officer’s gun, kill at will, and escape easily. The cameras did nothing but provide evidence after the fact of what he had done. If this had happened in a remote ally, and he was a disguised attacker, even the evidentiary value would be pretty limited. Like so many things we are going these days in the name of security, cameras like this probably fail on their own terms, without even taking into account the effects on our liberties.

  9. I’m phocion, I don’t like the cameras, but I don’t see a compelling argument against them on privacy grounds.

    It does seem like they wouldn’t be effective, there’s probably too much noise to signal.

  10. I have never had a problem with public cameras, provided they are implemented in the proper way.

    They must first be placed in those areas with the greatest number of serious crimes, and those areas with the greatest potential for crime.

    That’s right. They must first be placed in every office of every elected, appointed and hired government official. Every police station, every bathroom, (plunger filled or not), every council chamber, car, truck or police scooter.

    In fact, make it easier. Just take a camera and clamp it to the head of every official, 24 by 7, during their term in office.

    Do this to every candidate for office the moment they announce candidacy.

    Then broadcast this over the net.

    Then, and only then, when we can keep an eye on them FIRST, should we even CONSIDER public cameras pointed at us.


  11. What’s the astroturf angle on this one? TCS quickly goes non-libertatian when they have a product to sell or a protected market to defend.

    TCS is just the big-business-on-welfare shill for libertarians. They are about as libetarian as Bush.

  12. Tom,

    I like it. Even if restricted to only while the officials are doing their public jobs, not while they’re out nailing the mistress.


    Two points. One is that police officers writing down events are recording what they observed (the point already made by Rich). The other point is more of a question. Totally ditch the recording capability and have an army of officers watching monitors that cover the whole city, who write down whenever they see something potentially illegal. Or whenever they see any kind of event at all, since it could help them solve other crims. Would that be okay? I still wouldn’t be okay with that, even though it’s simply an augmentation of traditional police observational power.


    If stalking is qualitatively different than police just coming across crimes while out on their beats, should it be illegal for police to tail suspects and persons of interest without court order? This kind of stalking happens all the time. You don’t even need to be a potential criminal; maybe, without your knowledge, your brother is wanted, so they tail you hoping you lead them to him.

  13. On another camera issue, I actually don’t have a problem with cameras in the school classroom (though I’m an advocate of complete school choice).

    As a former teacher, WAY too much time & effort was spent justifying disciplinary/academic actions against a kid. Of course every parent believes what their kid tells them (“My teacher picks on me”, “I wuzzn’t doin nuthin”), I’d end up wasting my time convincing my administration that: yes, that kid did threaten me, or more common (but just as time-consuming):

    “yes, your kids sleeps in class”
    “yes, he disturbs others”
    “yes, he’s had plenty of chance to succeed”
    “no, he’s treated just like everyone else”

    Sigh. I can envision a parent-teacher conference at a school with cameras: “Shall we go to the tape, Mrs. Johnson?”

  14. Lewis: Cameras may allow prevention of and/or reaction to events not immediately under observation. Example: camera cop notices everyone looking north down mainstreet. Panning toward where they’re looking, all camera cop sees is an empty bus shelter with an unused panic button. In a few seconds a scuffle moves into view from behind the shelter. Flesh cops can then be dispatched, even as the victim is still fighting to reach the panic button.

    Phocion: Does the government have a right to observe public spaces? If so, how are its limits different from a citizen? A security guard, an officer person, or the government as a legal person all seem to be stalkers if they persistently focus on a particular target.

    My short broad position is that cameras may be sometimes effective, but are not permissible as part of a free society with a presumption of innocence. I’d rather arm everyone.

  15. tomWright,

    You nailed it!

  16. Since eyewitness observation is notoriously unreliable and inaccurate, a cop writing down what he sees is not going to be as accurate as a videotape of any given event.

  17. phocion, Rich Ard,

    I don’t know. This libertarianing is hard!

  18. books, videotape comes with its own dangers. What you see carries a instinctive emotional punch, while what you hear does not. Coupled with a situation in which significant events occur out of camera range, going to the tape could be misleading.

    The lens captures accurately everything that occurs in front of the lens, but that is not the same as capturing everything that occured. Trouble is, the realism of the image makes it appear that it is providing a complete record.

    Did I mention that this is a hard one?

  19. joe: Its only hard if one makes it so. Give up any idea of control and become free and easy.

    If you want more, meet me behind the statue of Kropotkin where the cameras can’t see.

  20. Ironchef-

    I love that, just for the fact that I hate parents of kids that “can do no wrong”!

  21. A security guard, an officer person, or the government as a legal person all seem to be stalkers if they persistently focus on a particular target.

    And yet they do. In the case of a Mafia crime boss, they might follow his every public move for years, and use undercover agents to infiltrate the organization and follow him around on private property, too. I think the latter might involve a court’s say-so, but I’m not sure. It would be interesting if someone tried to use the “stalker” defense to attack police tailing without probable cause.

    a cop writing down what he sees is not going to be as accurate as a videotape of any given event.

    You mean like the alien autopsy video?

    I agree with joe that it’s a “hard one”. I’m uncomfortable with cameras, but it’s hard to attack them on qualitative grounds as being any worse than what could hypothetically be done without them. That’s why I think idealism should be damned on this, and just implement a realistic system that most people are okay with. And that could be very different from area to area. If people were getting raped on my block every night, I’d probably support cameras. But let’s make it a well-debated community choice, and localize the decision-making as much as possible.

    I feel the same way about abortion, by the way. I don’t have a problem with sucking out a zygote, but I have a problem with killing a nine-month old fetus. There’s no moment (that we know of) when *bam* suddenly all the properties of humanity are imbued (Christians claim conception of course), so what a lot of Western nations do is just set a fixed limit somewhere between conception and birth that most people are okay with. Kinda like how we in the US get rights when we turn 18, even though we weren’t any smarter a day earlier at 17-364/365. Some people are mentally mature at 12; some make it to old age without maturing. You can’t possibly justify the exact age of 18 for everyone. But feasibly, and for equal protection under the law, we need one fixed age for everyone. No qualitative difference is invoked for those limits. They’re just sane compromises.

  22. I think I have heard that most crimes are committed on private property. (The home) Perhaps the gov’t will protect citizens there next? A camera or two in each room will help catch the home invaders, drug users, or child molesters.

  23. Thank you for your comment, Julian. I am aware of the debates you mention, most of which are rather academic and rarely enter into the ordinary discourse in town hall meetings such as the one I cited in the article. Mostly people evoke the Big Brother trope and that is primarily what I wanted to encourage people to dig deeper into.

    However, in fairness, I should address your point about an analogy with stalking laws. In the case of cameras, “someone” isn’t engaged in a kind of “obsessive constant observation.” Neither cameras nor recorders are sentient (yet). Unless there is some cop sitting in the control booth jerking off to recordings of some lady, I fail to see how it’s actually stalking, or even vaguely analagous to stalking.

    So, if the criteria for writing the article included treating thinly stretched analogies to stalking, you’re right: I should not have written it. Actually, the purpose of the piece was to show that it’s really not a libertarian issue as such (whether public property is or not) – rather an issue of cost-benefit analysis. I never claimed that the results of the cost/benefit came out on the side of cameras as an effective deterrent. I simply put forth that this should be timbre and substance of the debate. Despite your claim, I am aware of the “efficacy” arguments you site, especially since I linked to one in the piece by the Christian Science Monitor (which refer to the studies you mention). I encourage you to visit that link.

  24. Actually, the cop in the control booth checking out women is a story Jeff Rosen relates in his NYT Mag article of a few years back about the British cameras. But I’m now even more perplexed about the focus of the piece, Max. If there’s a more-sophisticated and a less-sophisticated version of the same invasion-of-privacy argument, don’t you ultimately deal with both if you hit it in its best form rather than smacking around the half-formed version? And the CSM article you mention concedes that, nice anecdotes aside, “research has yet to support the case for CCTV.” If you were aware of evidence so directly pertinent to the argument, why elide it?

  25. OK, you busted me. I don’t think the stalking argument is very sophisticated at all. In fact, don’t think there are any good arguments against public cameras; aside from questioning the very existence of the public sector… (and streets are probably the last battleground for that debate (figuratively, not literally)).

    I really, honestly don’t understand what people find theoretically objectionable. I understand the “creepy” response more than I do such epicyclical arguments, honestly. But then again, people found in vitro fertilization creepy back when.

    When I read the pieces about “efficacy,” most of the authors avoid the issue of whether the cameras actually provide evidence for conviction ex post facto – whether or not they actually help prevent crime or help cops apprehend them on the spot.

    I will grant you that I haven’t read the Lessig piece. (I will do so.) But to answer your question, the focus of the piece was to point out something very simple: municiple cameras are not a “Big Brother” issue. Government cameras in your home are. I actually worry that if we continue crying wolf at everything that makes us feel creepy as libertarians (but we can’t really put our finger on it), no one will listen when there really are serious rights violations.

    Still, Julian, I could be convinced. I don’t want to be anti-libertarian about it. The next time we run into one another, I’d be happy to take the issue up. At that time, I would hope for something more compelling against these cameras than the suggestion that recording devices are like stalkers, or that control booth cops are inappropriate for monitoring people since they look at women – nevermind that they can do that from the fifth floor of an office building. (Indeed, I’d argue that if onanism were the real issue, then we could simply have the whole process automated until the stuff is required for evidence in a court of law.) If you want, I can go into why it’s NOT like stalking another time…

  26. cost-benefit analysis

    Well, I can see the cost. Someone will have to catalog and store all the video. Looks like a whole new munincipal department will be needed for that chore.

  27. The stalking analogy was only half serious: The point was that the comparison between being casually observed on the street on some occasion and having an elaborate, searchable (assuming sufficiently well-developed face recognition tech), permanent record of all your public activity over an extended period isn’t terribly apt. But, as you say, we can hash it out over a drink sometime.

  28. Max & Julian,

    Well, if you want to get hard-core libertarian about it, how is someone’s right to privacy violated by someone masturbating to their image on video captured in a public place?

  29. joe:

    I think I might be less opposed to this were the costs to be defrayed by making that database public (in the manner that land title records are searchable) and accessible for a fee. It seems to me less an invasion of privacy if anyone and everyone has access to that database.

    What if a remote-viewing officer sees me light up a joint in my backyard? Is that reasonable suspicion sufficient to come search my house?

    Was that last paragraph?

  30. Seems to me the first question asked should be the simple one. “After we put the cameras in, did the crime rate drop.”

    In too many of these questions the basic assumption is taken on faith instead of being tested. See “War on drugs stops drug use” and “Banning guns drops the violence rate.”

  31. Larry A,

    Yes, that should be the ultimate question; but the crime rate is influenced by so many variables that it would be extremely hard to ferret out a conclusion as to whether cameras themselves lower crime rates.

  32. phocion–
    I certainly think police trailing persons of interest (stalking them, to continue the controversial analogy) is a bit different from them trailing EVERYONE. That is what cameras everywhere would amount to. Of course, if you aren’t doing anything illegal, why would you mind? If you don’t have contraband in your trunk, why would you mind if a cop looked around in there? There is obviously a public/private distinction there, but the basic point is do we want our government observing us and tracking us at all times when there is no reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing to justify the “stalking”?

    As for whether fighting this issue is crying wolf, and whether it would be smarter to wait until they suggest placing cameras in our homes (or at least in our yards), I guess having seen how these slopes tend to get more slippery the further you go, I would just as soon draw a line and fight here, to at least make people aware that this is more than a ho-hum issue. Telling people they could not smoke in restaurants seemed like a fairly reasonable restriction (and still does to me, from a purely personal, “I’d rather my salad not taste like Salem Lights” point of view), but it that line of reasoning has picked up quite a bit of steam, and the sphere in which someone can smoke will soon be limited to that person’s closet (assuming that person does not live with children or in an apartment complex where the smoke could bother other tenants).

  33. Crimethink: Yes, that should be the ultimate question; but the crime rate is influenced by so many variables that it would be extremely hard to ferret out a conclusion as to whether cameras themselves lower crime rates.

    Sic John Lott on ’em.

  34. I don’t see any persuasive libertarian arguments against public surveillance cameras.

    However, there is one that I think makes pragmatic sense: Couple widespread cameras with recording capacity and face recognition technology and you have set in place government power which Saddam Hussein and Joe Stalin would have killed for.

    The problem as I see it isn’t “Are cameras legit?”, but do we want the government to have that much power to control populations?

    Remember, the proposed use is to control crime, but does anyone here think that Saddam would have used such cameras only to stop crimes of violence? Of course not: He would have used them to COMMIT crimes. That is the danger: With face recognition technology they will be able to find anyone: not just muggers, but political dissenters. That is the scary part. Our current government, for all its many failings, is generally quite decent by world standards, but there are no guarantees that will always be the case.

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