With the Halloween shootings, the proposal to install police security cameras at particular high-crime locations is back in the news. Concerns about the cameras include the "Big Brother" worry--that their presence and use will violate our privacy and lead to other kinds of government tracking and personal intrusion. A related version of this criticism is that the selective use of cameras on certain streets and certain neighborhoods makes a negative statement--a statement coming from government--about those areas and about particular groups.
For what it's worth, here's one person's take on this. For the past few years, I've spent part of my summers living and working in London, the undisputed world capital of camera surveillance (CCTV). The selective use concern is not an issue there, because the cameras are everywhere. They're found across the country as well. It's been estimated that in the U.K. there's one camera for about every 14 citizens, and although the country has one percent of the world's population, it has 20 percent of the world's CCTVs. Outside their homes and offices, most Londoners spend a lot of their time being filmed. The heavy use of CCTVs is controversial, and getting more so, as demands there for U.S.-style individual rights against the government grow. There are also criticisms that the cameras don't help to solve or deter crime.
I consider myself to be a pretty private person--although I've started a blog you will not find what I ate for breakfast or my personal life goals in these posts. I've never posted a personal video on the web. I have, however, pointed out to doctors' offices that their reception area is not sufficiently private in the way they speak with patients or doctors. And dining out with my late father was always a potential adventure in loud personal disclosure that could make me want to crawl under the table.
But the cameras don't bother me. In fact, I find them comforting at times, and look for them when I'm traveling by Tube late at night. I often stand directly in front of them while waiting for the next train. My privacy seems much more at risk when I'm asked by a doctor's office to supply a social security number, or even when I use my shopper's card at Wegmans--I bet life insurance companies would like that information (a concern expressed in Britain about the use of store "loyalty cards"). The visual record of my whereabouts doesn't seem as threatening to me as specific (and privately collected) data about me and my activities.
The following effect should show up in aggregate statistics, and if those statistics show that the cameras don't actually lower crime, then I'm off-base in what follows, but: If I'm feeling safer with the cameras around, chances are that others are too, and therefore chances are that there are more people like me--i.e., non-criminals--occupying that space, and in turn, chances are that space is likely to be safer than it would be, absent the cameras.
This is something that might be worth a trial look.
Note: This blog draws in part on my experiences and observations interviewing political figures, writers, and analysts for "The Campbell Conversations" on WRVO. To hear past interviews I refer to in these posts, please go to the show's website. The views expressed here are solely my own, and do not represent Syracuse University, the Campbell Institute, or the WRVO Stations.
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