Eye in the Sky.

Some time ago the courts decided that no one has a right to privacy when they are on the streets or in public places. Initially, this applied, in part, to the many surveillance cameras installed by banks and stores and apartment buildings. Then the development of digital cameras made surveillance video available to watchers in real time and it made it simple to transfer the images between widely separated computers. Then computer geeks developed face-recognition software and programs that detected “anomalous behavior.” All of these were great crime-fighting tools, at least according to the police who sing the non-specific praises of the cameras as deterrents and crime-solving aids.

With this doorway open, since 9-11 the Department of Homeland Security has been making grants to cities to fund the installation of security cameras targeting public places. These cameras supplement the already existing security cameras installed by banks, stores, and office buildings. Madison, Wisconsin—a bastion of Mid-Western liberalism–is putting in 32 cameras; Chicago and Baltimore—hotbeds of urban crime which actually don’t give a rip about Islamic terrorism—are installing thousands of cameras and are linking them to the existing systems of private cameras. The most elaborate system is that of the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative: by 2010, 3,000 cameras will be in place throughout Wall Street and the World Trade Center area. In addition, the system includes license plate readers connected to computers that cross reference the numbers of suspect vehicles and which share images with the Department of Homeland Security and the EffaBeeEye.

Now there is a new layer of observation: police, government, and private drones. The police are hot to use drones. In the 1980s the Supreme Court held that the police don’t need a warrant to observe private property from public airspace. [NB: What is “public airspace”? So far as I can tell, anything at a height of 500 feet or above is clearly public airspace; anything 83 feet or below is private airspace; and what is in-between is a little murky. Are you allowed to shoot drones under 83 feet like skeet?] Drones can be fitted with high-resolution cameras, infra-red sensors, license plate-readers, and directional microphones. They are quieter and smaller than helicopters, reducing the chance that people will know that they are being observed without a warrant. If you keep your shades pulled down, can they “assume” you’re running a grow house?

Are there problems with this program? In the eyes of individual rights advocates on the left and right, the answer is definitely yes. While government agencies will watch millions of people in public places in hopes of catching a few terrorists before an attack, it is more likely that they only will be able to figure out what happened after the attack. Will people just become habituated to being watched in public places? In a generation, will they accept the possibility of being watched in semi-public places? What happens when surveillance images leak from the government agency to the public sphere? See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8zYRYh6cQ2g The clip is fun to watch, except that it is a public traffic camera with the film leaked to provide private entertainment. What if a mini-drone lands on your bathroom window sill one morning and catches you in the shower? Some Peeping Tom at home or cops finding a fun use for the technology paid for by the DEA or property seizures from teen-age druggies driving their Dad’s BMW? In the eyes of most Americans, however, more surveillance cameras are just fine. (“The drone over your backyard,” The Week, 15 June 2012, p. 11.)

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