Saturday, July 14, 2007

Recent privacy issue #3

London has its so-called Ring of Steel, an extensive web of cameras observing everyone and everything on public streets in the central part of the city. First put in place in 1990, it's designed to detect, track, and thereby deter terrorists. And now New York City intends to follow suit, the New York Times said this past Monday:
By the end of this year, police officials say, more than 100 cameras will have begun monitoring cars moving through Lower Manhattan, the beginning phase of a London-style surveillance system that would be the first in the United States. ...

If the program is fully financed, it will include not only license plate readers but also 3,000 public and private security cameras below Canal Street, as well as a center staffed by the police and private security officers, and movable roadblocks.
The city has obtained $25 million of the estimated $90 million cost: $15 million from the Department for the Protection of the Fatherland and $10 million from the city,
more than enough to install 116 license plate readers in fixed and mobile locations, including cars and helicopters, in the coming months. ...

But the downtown security plan involves much more than keeping track of license plates. Three thousand surveillance cameras would be installed below Canal Street by the end of 2008, about two-thirds of them owned by downtown companies. Some of those are already in place. Pivoting gates would be installed at critical intersections; they would swing out to block traffic or a suspect car at the push of a button.
Under this "Lower Manhattan Security Initiative," live video from the cameras would be transmitted to a security center staffed by both police and corporate security agents, according to cop rep Paul Browne, who claims the plan does not need City Council approval.

So let's make sure we understand: Thousands of cameras are to be used to monitor everyone and everything going on in a whole section of Manhattan which would be subject to an instant lockdown. As part of this, private companies are being turned into extensions of the police and the police force is being turned into an extension of corporate security firms, with corporate records (i.e., their videos) that previously should have been available to police only upon issuance of a subpoena and police records (again, their videos) which previously should not have been available to private corporations at all being freely and immediately combined. And this can all be done, supposedly, with no public input, no oversight, and no need for the approval of any elected officials. The cops can just do this on their own authority.

Christopher Dunn, a lawyer with the New York Civil Liberties Union, called the program "a whole new level of police monitoring" and noted the lack of privacy protections "for the hundreds of thousands of people who will end up in N.Y.P.D. computers."
He said he worried about what would happen to the images once they were archived, how they would be used by the police and who else would have access to them.

Already, according to a report last year by the civil liberties group, there are nearly 4,200 public and private surveillance cameras below 14th Street, a fivefold increase since 1998, with virtually no oversight over what becomes of the recordings.
But Browne had a ready answer, one that, if you've been paying attention, you knew was coming: The camera would be recording in “areas where there’s no expectation of privacy.” (Emphasis added.)

Nice job imitating a parrot, Mr. Browne.

Oh, but he wasn't done: He actually said, actually said, that law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear.

Well, of course they don't! And why should they? Just like in Hitler's Germany, in Stalin's Russia, in Saddam's Iraq, so long as you just keep your mouth shut, do as you're told, and obey the law, everything will be fine! Can you, can anyone, name any government down through history (with the possible exception of Caligula's Rome and Idi Amin's Uganda), no matter how free or how repressive, under which it could not be said that "if you shut up and just obey the law you have nothing to fear?"

But again of course, that is not the issue here. The issue isn't whether "law-abiding citizens" have something to fear but if the government (and now private corporations) are collecting and storing information that is none of their goddam business. It should not be for us to prove that the government and corporations shouldn't be able to watch every public thing we say and do, it should be for them to prove what they need to observe - and why. Because as former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas said, "The right to be let alone is indeed the beginning of all freedoms."

The pernicious doctrine that in matters of personal privacy the default position should be that police can know unless you can give a good reason why they shouldn't rather than police can't know unless they can give good reason why they should plus in today's information-saturated world there is no such thing as "insignificant" personal data, is one that over time will strip, is stripping, away any concept of privacy.

On top of all this, it's not even clear that such extensive, privacy-stomping, personally-inhibiting surveillance as envisioned for lower Manhattan actually accomplishes anything other than make police and security agents feel powerful.
There is little evidence to suggest that security cameras deter crime or terrorists, said James J. Carafano, a senior fellow for homeland security at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative research group in Washington. ...

While having 3,000 cameras whirring at the same time means loads of information will be captured, it also means there will be a lot of useless data to sift through.

“The more hay you have, the harder it is to find the needle,” said Mr. Carafano.
Because let's not forget, London’s oh so impressive Ring of Steel utterly failed to prevent the 2005 subway bombings or the two attempted car bombings last month. British authorities did say the cameras were useful in the case of last month's failed attacks in retracing the paths of the cars, leading to several arrests. But arresting people after the bombs go off is not what the surveillance is for, is it? It's supposed to deter, to prevent, such attacks. And very clearly, it doesn't.

So not only are we to be under constant observation, not only is our privacy to be increasingly dismissed as something in which we can have "no expectation," but doing so doesn't even do us a damn bit of good.

Footnote: Something else Douglas said was that "As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there's a twilight where everything remains seemingly unchanged, and it is in such twilight that we must be aware of change in the air, however slight, lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness."

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