Sunday, January 14, 2007

Video Surveillance

A few months ago, it was decided that they would put video surveillance cameras in my neighbourhood to protect visiting suburbanites during the holiday season. The business community wants to continue with this practice because they have the idea that this will make the area seem safer to outsiders. While I personally love nothing more than filthy consumerism, I think that taking the "no really, it's safe here!!!" approach keeps the memory of the 2005 Boxing Day murder fresh in everyone's mind. Torontoist weighs in on both sides of the video surveillance debate here.

I am against public video surveillance, but I never seem to agree with the publicly stated arguments against it. Here in Canada, those that oppose it tend to focus on the fact that a certain class of society will be targeted (i.e. the types of people that commit crimes. Which may involve racial, gender, age and socioeconomic "profiling"). While, there is probably a partial truth in that claim, regular people aren't likely to be swayed by an argument that says "these cameras will only target people who are statistically most likely to commit violent crime". Sadly they also rely on the fact that video surveillance isn't effective. This approach is wrong for two reasons: 1st as technology (particularly facial recognition) improves, video surveillance will become more effective (as most people actually don't want to walk around wearing hoodies and baseball caps, that level of protection is only useful to a certain subset of the population) and the argument becomes invalid; 2nd it assumes that were it effective it would be worth doing and causes people to look for better ways to monitor the public.

For example, while prohibitively expensive, the state could hire someone to follow us around at all times whenever we go out in public, keeping track of what we do. At first this would seem strange and intrusive, but eventually we would get used to it and continue to act as we did before we were tracked by human monitors. We are not required to interact with these people, and they can't follow us into our homes so what's the big deal? It keeps all of us safe, and is far more effective than video cameras. Unless I'm doing something wrong, why do I have reason to be worried? Private companies do it all the time, hiring plainclothes security guards who follow suspicious lookin' folk as they walk through stores.

Now, most reasonable people would agree that human monitors are a decidedly bad idea. But why? If video cameras are allowed to record every move that we make when we are outside (and when people start making reference to how effective it has been in London, that is essentially what we are talking about), the state could have a person remotely watch everything we do in public at all times. Whether or not this is actually what would occur, they would have that ability. I suppose that you could argue that because the media of the lens and the screen intervene, it is not the same thing (what a good little McLuhanite you are, do go on....).

So yes, Walmart may choose to track every move I make while I am in their store, but this is very different than the state tracking me as I walk the streets to work. First of all, Walmart is private property and I don't actually have a right to be there. And, despite their everyday low prices, I don't actually need to go into a Walmart. As a Canadian, I am allowed to walk the streets at will. Since I have decided not to be a hermit, I am required to walk on public streets at least some of the time. Walmart allows me to enter their establishment with the understanding that I am likely there to buy things or at least browse what they have to offer. Should I have a reputation as a trouble causer, they would have every right to ask me to leave. Despite what the Naomi Kleins of the world think, the fact that we treat private establishments like public places does not actually make it so. Unless there is a warrant out for my arrest or I am breaking the law at that time, the fact that I am a known 'trouble causer' would not be a perfectly legitimate reason to ask me to leave Yonge St.

Furthermore, should I take something off the shelf at Walmart, they have every right to stop me from leaving their premises unless I pay for the item or put it back on the shelf. If I do not do so, they can call the police and have them look into the matter. Walmart cannot, however, get a description of me, investigate, take me from my home, put me on trial and lock me in a cage for a year until I learn my lesson. Because we give the state this right (and, like most people, I think that it is good that we do to maintain order in society), we have to limit the power that we give them in general.

When I hear that video cameras have helped to capture terrorists or people who raped and murdered small children, there is certainly part of me that feels that is temporarily swayed by the "surveillance = protection" argument. But the fact remains that installing video cameras on public streets means that we have given the police the power to monitor the movement of free people through society at all times. There are many ways that we could let the government intervene in our lives to make us safe, but that doesn't mean that we should (I'm looking at you New York City). Every time we give them more power, we deny ourselves rights. No, I don't have the right to go out in public unseen, but I should have the right to participate in public life without being under constant monitoring by the state.

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