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Saturday, August 4, 2007
Current Affairs ... Public Policy ... Technology ...

The other day, I got a little tour of a police communications center located in a major city in New Jersey. The police have approximately 30 or 40 cameras set up in various spots throughout the city, and they hope to get another 40 or so within the next year or two. That’s not exactly the kind of coverage that London, England has, with thousands of cameras watching almost every street in town. (Allegedly there are 32 cameras within 200 yards of the North London apartment where George Orwell once lived.) Even accounting for the fact that the city I visited was a good bit smaller and less populated than London, the camera system that I saw was quite a bit less comprehensive. Even Baltimore has 500 cameras, quite a bit more per capita than where I was.

The system I saw actually has some privacy protection built in; when it points at a home or apartment building, computer software automatically blocks out the window areas. Or at least that’s what we saw on the screen. But out on the streets, these cameras can see quite a lot. The resolution of the images from these cameras are very good, even at a long distance. The night vision capability is also very good. They seem to have trouble seeing past window glare, e.g. inside a car on a sunny day. So I suggested that they look into polarizer filters, which photographers have used for years. Just doing my part for Big Brother. The people I talked with have other interesting plans to enhance their monitoring capacity, e.g. a system of microphones tied to computers that isolate the sound of gunfire and indicate where it came from (via triangulation). A police dispatcher could see a red light blink on a map showing a gunfire location, and instantly get a squad car on the way. No more waiting for someone to call it in – if anyone would actually do that anymore. The city in question has a growing “don’t snitch, don’t get involved” mentality because of its street gang problem.

The camera system was being attended to by a funky assortment of police assistants and technicians; they didn’t seem very much like Gestapo types. I’m fairly convinced that it will be a while before this system is used for anything more than busting street criminals and getting EMS and police assistance out to auto accident sites as quickly as possible. But then again, the “slope” to abuse of such technology is indeed a slippery one. The city in question once had a mayor who was noted for his authoritarian ways and his appetite for nasty attacks against his opponents. It is easy to picture such a mayor cowing his police commander to have the camera people keep an eye on a reformist challenger during an election campaign. Where ever the young upstart challenger holds a rally or makes an outdoor speech, the cameras will be keeping track of the crowd sizes and movements. Even scarier, anyone working for the city (or anyone who does business with the city) that might be helping the reform candidate could show up in these high-quality pictures. You know they will then be in for a rough time. The political incumbents in cities with such capabilities will no doubt be licking their chops thinking of all the ways they can use these techno-toys to squelch any grass-root political threats.

Because of violent crime and the fear that it brings, our nation cannot go back to simpler days. To mix my metaphors some more, we’ve let the “eye-in-the-sky” genie out of the bottle. How do we now control this stuff? I have a suggestion. Pass a federal law requiring that every feed from every government surveillance camera be available to the public in real time on the Internet, or in recorded version by request at a local library. OK, there will need to be certain exceptions where terrorism and national security might be involved. You can’t let the public monitor line feeds from a nuclear submarine base. However, the cameras that I saw the other day were mostly focused on poor neighborhoods and downtown shopping districts. I don’t think they would have been of much use to al Qaeda. (But then again, a camera that looks at the front of a check cashing store could cause trouble; bad guys could monitor it to find the best time to rob departing customers, or to find out when an armored truck is making a cash delivery).

The police camera question is a tough one; it upsets the balance that our nation has carefully crafted over its 230 year history regarding the tension between citizen privacy and government authority. Right now, most of the police cameras are in ghettos, but once they reach the nicer suburban neighborhoods, you may see a lot more discussion of the issue. Police cameras — coming soon to a streetlight post near you!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:06 pm      

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