How do you behave when you are being watched by a police officer? Certainly, you would be less likely to misbehave, but you would also be less likely to behave in an ordinary and carefree way.
People who are closely watched by authorities tend to avoid anything that might create attention, even if they are doing nothing wrong. They tend to watch what they say. It’s quite nerve wracking, actually, to be watched by someone with the authority to arrest or roust you.
Of course, society needs a certain level of policing. But whereas normal police activities tend not to be overly intrusive for passersby, the increasing tendency of governments to install video cameras in public places has chilling implications.
In those cases, police use high-definition cameras to watch and zero in on the citizenry. Those who are within range of the camera must realize that they might always be watched.
Such Orwellian policies have expanded as a way to fight crime. Officials often exploit the fear of crime and find an investment in new technology to be the path of least resistance.
But too few people are considering the ramifications of such policies. Fortunately, a new study by University of Southern California researchers, released by the California Bureau of Research, looks into the effect of video cameras in the city of Los Angeles.
The study focuses on cameras in two neighborhoods: at Hollywood and Vine, and at the Jordan Downs housing project in Watts.
The research found no significant correlation between crime rates and the cameras. As an ACLU analysis of the report explains, “In Hollywood, violent crime decreased less in target areas with cameras than in the surrounding areas … . Property crimes in Hollywood decreased slightly more in the camera area (17.8 percent to 16.4 percent), although rates of vandalism and auto theft fared worse than in control areas.” Equally insignificant disparities were found in the Watts housing project.
Certainly, such a study needs to take front-and-center in a debate over the expansion of these surveillance programs. Unfortunately, as the ACLU pointed out, such programs have expanded with little study and little debate.
The ACLU is rightly concerned about the civil liberty implications of such ‘round-the-clock monitoring of the population: “(P)eople simply act differently when they are being watched — they censor what they say, how they behave, and whether they stay in a surveillance area at all. As such, cameras threaten First Amendment rights of speech and association.”
The ACLU also found the possibility of abuse of the cameras, pointing to instances in Great Britain where camera operators use them for “voyeuristic reasons” — i.e., to ogle women and zoom in on minorities in particular.
And, of course, such cameras are quite costly.
We expect the normal reaction from the law-and-order crowd: “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to fear.” We’d remind those who echo such sentiments to realize those are appropriate views in totalitarian and police states, not in free and democratic societies.