Wednesday, August 24, 2005

“Big Brother,” the Friendly Camera


There’s a security monitoring the swimming pool in my apartment building and two others recording the comings and goings at the building’s entrances. The mom and pop grocery store across the street keeps two of them rolling, the better to catch me if I steal something. My bank has three. If I drive on the new expressway, instead of stopping at a toll booth I’ll get a bill in the mail, courtesy of the . A dozen years ago, I might even have received a speeding ticket from an unmanned video camera, but a new provincial government abolished surveillance — regrettably, in my opinion, for they probably reduced the accident rates. In some countries I understand there are cameras at most major intersections. Thank goodness there are cameras at airports and subway stations; they make it easier to identify and criminals.

The spookiest prospect is the combining of surveillance technology with weapons in . One false move or one conspiratorial conversation, recorded on tape, and a laser beam from a satellite takes out your living room. This is not far-fetched. One Iraqi guy actually was talking on his mobile while driving; an American helicopter followed his car along the highway and blew it up. Likewise, Russian missiles zeroed in on a Chechen leader who was standing out in a field talking on his phone.

I don’t actually feel worried yet about this technology, but if I lived in a totalitarian state I’d sure be scared. In the 1980s I used to visit peace activists in Moscow. I assumed that the KGB couldn’t follow me to their apartments if I traveled by subway, but that was actually easy; there were at every Metro station and they could watch me getting on and off.

People in China have been protesting about the proliferation of cameras monitoring their own public behavior — just as Orwell’s hero, Winston Smith, worried because everywhere, “Big Brother is Watching You.” I understand that Saddam Hussein outdid Hitler by bugging people’s beds and even trees and park benches. There was no place in Iraq where one could be sure of having privacy.

When should we begin to worry in Western, societies? I think the answer must depend on two factors: first, whether the cameras are limited to public places or begin invading homes and private offices too, and second, whether they are accessible to everyone, or only to certain officials. I’d also prohibit for snooping. Cameras yes, microphones no.

David Brin has written a book on the subject: The Transparent Society. He argues that cameras are increasing in public places; that they do reduce crime rates; and that we should encourage their proliferation — so long as they are never permitted in private places. He says that video-cameras can give us more , rather than less. Indeed, when I park in my condo’s underground garage late at night and walk indoors, I feel safer if a camera is rolling. Whether we welcome these cameras or fear them depends on whether they are a public resource or available only to the police or other powerful persons. If everyone can watch everyone else in public, we can be more confident there’s no thug lurking outside, and we can let kids play safely in the park, keeping our eye on them by remote surveillance. But we must absolutely insist on excluding these devices from private areas.

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