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The New York Times.

Big Brother's Eyes
May 2, 2002

By William D. Eggers & Eve Tushnet

Government cameras are watching you - at red lights across America, and at MetroCard machines on the New York subway. And it's not going to stop.

Already, in London's Liverpool Street Station, they're testing robot cameras that will signal a cop if we display suspicious behavior.

House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) asks: "Do we really want a society where one cannot walk down the street without Big Brother tracking our every move?"

Well, no. But the future need not be so grim.

We've been living with cameras for years now - but few of us worry about cameras at the 7-11 or the ATM. We can live with more of them if we act now to safeguard privacy against potential governmental abuses.

Many civil libertarians insist that the only way to protect privacy is through prohibition: Tear down the cameras. Ban government from using face-recognition and other biometric technologies.

Sounds good, but it won't work. For one thing, the spycams are already here. Fully 80 percent of America's 19,000 police departments are already using them, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police. And Congress is highly unlikely to pass a law forcing every city in the country to take down their cameras.

What's more, the "ban everything" approach ignores the technologies' plain benefits. Any woman who's had to walk through a deserted parking garage to her car knows why many people might welcome cameras.

With many advances still ahead, computer-linked surveillance cameras can already identify crimes as they occur, reduce false arrests and convictions and provide much better evidence than notoriously unreliable witness testimony. Linked to biometric databases, the cameras can help prevent fraud, find a lost child and keep terrorists out of airports and pedophiles out of schools.

The cameras aren't going away. Fortunately, with some care we can reap the benefits of these technologies without worrying about waking up in "1984," "Brazil" or "Enemy of the State."

Let machines do the watching: A basic objection to the cameras is their creepiness. Many women may like the feeling of extra security the cameras provide, but others will wonder whether the invisible person controlling the camera is a bored man who's zooming in on her chest. Reducing human involvement and maximizing that of machines can help prevent this problem, as well as easing the fear that the cameras might target certain groups like gay couples, political protestors and swarthy-looking men.

Once the technology is made more accurate, cameras equipped with face-recognition technology could do the bulk of the "watching," alerting humans only when they find a positive face match that needs verification. In the case of London's "robot cameras" and other behavioral-recognition technology, the cameras will be programmed to set off an alert when they detect suspicious movements such as fighting, weapon use or going from vehicle to vehicle at a parking garage (often a sign that a car thief is scoping out targets).

Limit how long the information is kept: Law-enforcement agencies will want to keep the information forever, but the threats to liberty from giving the government the ability to compile retrospective dossiers on any citizen outweigh the security advantages. With the exception of material needed for criminal investigations, the tapes should be destroyed within a reasonable time period.

Watch the watchers: Many police departments install cameras on squad cars to knock down false police brutality charges, but the cameras also record real uses of excessive force. Public defender Don Landis Jr. represented one arrestee whose case was dismissed after the videotape of his arrest proved that the arresting officer had lied. Landis noted, "The cameras bring accountability."

Video cameras are also used by agencies to videotape interrogations. In Charlottesville, Va., a detective was charged with assault after an interrogation camera caught him beating a suspect.

Inform the public: During the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, student protestors were identified with surveillance cameras that purportedly had been installed to monitor traffic, but in reality were being used to secretly keep tabs on how many times Chinese met with foreigners.

To prevent such a thing from ever happening in America, surveillance technology should be used openly, and as much information as possible must be given to the public regarding where it is in use, the reasons for its use and what safeguards exist to prevent abuses. There should also be sanctions - legally and in the court of public opinion - for politicians, cops or anyone else who breaks these rules.

In the end, of course, all of our liberties depend upon a vigilant culture that will revile anyone who misuses a video database to draw up anything like an "electronic enemies list." If we don't care about police or government abuses, we'll get them no matter what technology we use; if we do watch the watchers, no camera will protect an abuser from the press and the populace.

William D. Eggers is a senior fellow and Eve Tushnet is a research associate at the Manhattan Institute where they're working on a book on how technology is transforming government.

©2002 New York Post

About William Eggers: articles, bio, and photo



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