Friday, March 21, 2008

The Futility of Surveillance

In our modern society, it seems we are moving ever closer to constant video surveillance. We are told by the authorities that this ubiquitous monitoring is 'for our safety'. But is it really? First we hear that the City of Dallas has turned off their red-light cameras because they didn't make as much revenue from them as they had hoped.

Then comes the chilling news that in New York City, a rape was captured on camera, yet the police failed to see it. According to the story in the New York Daily News,
A 19-year-old woman was raped at knifepoint inside the Van Dyke houses in Brooklyn early Thursday - a housing complex with more than 200 cameras supposedly monitored around the clock by the NYPD.

Sources told the Daily News that at least one video camera recorded the rapist grabbing the young woman and pulling her into an elevator.

This would be bad enough if the police hadn't employed a particularly mealy-mouthed way of excusing their negligence. According to the Post, the DEputy Police commissioner, one Paul Browne, claimed that "there was no suspicious action captured on tape", a claim that the story itself clearly showed to be false. Then the Daily News also quoted an anonymous police officer as saying that,
"It's mind-numbing, and actually difficult, to watch 30, 40, 50 cameras, all flashing different images every five to seven seconds," said a cop familiar with the system. "It's bad for the residents, it's bad for the cops."

This is the fallacy of camera surveillance. In the case of traffic cameras, the real purpose is revenue, not safety, And in the case of personal surveillance, it does not really help to protect individuals from criminals. It merely provides the illusion of safety, not actual safety. If government is going to claim that they are better at looking out for us than we are, then they need to be better at actually meeting the standard they have set. Ultimately, this is why we should never trust government with anything that can be done better by individuals. As far as our own personal protection goes, it is far better for us to be responsible for that, and let the police focus on bigger things that we as individuals cannot deal with. It is the same in the case of the national government- they can deal with threats to our nation in a way that we as individuals cannot, but we are far better at dealing with issues that are closer to home than some far-off federal bureaucracy.

As for the failure in this case, there is no excuse. If the cameras are truly being monitored 24 hours a day, then there is no way they ought to have missed this. And their sorry attempts to worm their way out of responsibility is appalling. I know the police have a difficult job, especially in cities like New York, but there is no excuse for missing this kind of thing. the police ought be ashamed and for the Press, there ought to be some very hard questions asked of the folks responsible for allowing this appalling incident to occur.

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