My brother Michael called me early on the morning of 9/11 with three messages: Turn on the television now; oh my god this is happening; and brace yourself for a war, violent racial profiling, and the disintegration of Constitutional standards for searches and trials. Here we are 12 years later, and his predictions were dead right: Afghanistan, Iraq, a spike in mortal hate crimes, the Patriot Act. I don't think those changes made our nation altogether safer, honestly. In many ways, they make this place more dangerous for lots of law-abiding people. But I don't disagree with everything we did, either. The US military should try to dismantle Al Qaeda. But all in all, I'm skeptical of our government's knee-jerk security.
It's as if the US had an allergic reaction to terrorism almost as bad, or in some cases worse, than the antigen that triggered it—a sort of anaphylaxis that suffocated civil liberties and rational discussion.
But ever since last Monday, since the Boston bombings, I've been doing something I don't usually do: hoping that cameras were videotaping every action along Boylston Street, along the entire marathon route, and, hell, every street in that city. I hoped that ocean of footage would be combed by law enforcement, who could crosscheck it with massive databases—databases that contain god knows what—that include every clue about the suspects' identities and every record the federal and local governments had on file, from cell phone calls to light bills.
I went to bed thinking about how, possibly, the FBI could sift through the files to catch those motherfuckers. But that's not normally how I want federal law enforcers to behave. And if I could feel that way—a civil-liberty crusading liberal who harbors a fairly deep distrust of federal law enforcement, particularly when it involves tracking the movements of innocent civilian in public—hundreds of millions of other people probably did, too.
The choppy, low-resolution videos of the two suspects the FBI initially posted Thursday were disappointing. They didn't show the suspects head-on because, presumably, they didn't have those images yet (and thus may not have been able to run the sort of facial-recognition software needed to compare their faces to other records). Was that really the best we had? Shouldn't we have had more footage, better footage?
That line of thinking has since spurred an outcry for politicians to engage in more video surveillance. Even though some US cities already have cameras, many of them private, the apparent usefulness of the video in Boston is compelling folks to say we need more of them to fight terrorism and even day-to-day crime.
"I do think we need more cameras," GOP Representative Peter King of New York said on Tuesday, responding to the bombings. He called cameras "a great law enforcement method and device" that "keeps us ahead of the terrorists, who are constantly trying to kill us."
"We Need More Cameras, and We Need Them Now," said a headline across Slate on Thursday. "Cities under the threat of terrorist attack should install networks of cameras to monitor everything that happens at vulnerable urban installations," says the piece by Farhad Manjoo, who also points out that "we should think about how cameras could help prevent crimes, not just solve them once they’ve already happened."
That's a romantic proposal: Affix these gadgets to every cornice in America and prevent crimes from happening in the first place.
President Obama's speech Thursday concluded with what almost sounded like a dare to terrorists and a challenge to America, a challenge to gird ourselves sufficiently to prevent another attack: "This time next year on the third Monday in April, the world will return to this great American city to run harder than ever and to cheer even louder for the 118th Boston Marathon," Obama thundered. He promised that America would be back along that 26.2-mile route—and I'm certain that we will. I'm also certain that every inch of it will go recorded. And don't plan on taking your backpack. But like Manjoo says, it's not just Boston that must arm itself with digital eyeballs. It's every city vulnerable to attack, which, of course, is every city.
“I will say, as I always have, because we have continued to put cameras throughout the city for security… purposes, they serve an important function for the city in providing the type of safety on a day-to-day basis—not just for big events like a marathon, but day-to-day purposes,” said Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel on Thursday.
Cameras are relatively inexpensive, storing data gets easier and easier, and law enforcement has never met a camera it didn't like. England has four million cameras and London has an estimated half-million cameras. By comparison, US cities have very few. In response to 9/11, about 3,000 surveillance cameras were installed in Lower Manhattan for the "Ring of Steel." And it showed that after 9/11, America's traditional resistance to casual surveillance—a resistance to being videotaped because our culture defends privacy, believes in anonymity, and champions free association—got blown up by the terrorists, too.
"I think the public, because of how spectacular these kinds of events are in terms of the imagery, they have the capacity to really incite a lot of fear," says Adam Molnar, a PhD candidate who is conducting research on security for major sporting events at the University of Victoria, in a phone call. "Typically, there is a public response to try to throw everything we can at a problem like this so it doesn't happen again. After an event like this, you often see a dramatic push to increase surveillance, which usually includes the government, the public, and private-sector emergency management professionals."
Nobody I've spoken to says video surveillance isn't useful or doesn't have its place. But whether or not surveillance cameras make us significantly safer is a matter of debate:
Their efficacy catching criminals is limited. The BBC reported recently that for every 1,000 cameras in London, only one crime is solved. And as Molnar at the University of Victoria points out, in the case of the Boston bombings, it remains unclear if "it actually was the [closed circuit television cameras] that broke the case."
Whether they prevent crime is even more highly disputed, which gets to part of the argument in that Slate article that said the cameras could deter crime. Despite spending the equivalent of $807 million on cameras in London, the crime rate didn't drop. The New York Times also reported in 2009 that "New York University says they do not deter it much, if at all" and out of four other studies, one found a decrease in serious crimes while "the other three studies, which ranged from 1978 to 2002 and focused on lower-crime situations, found that the cameras’ impact on reducing crime was statistically inconclusive." A USC study found camera had no "statistically significant effect in reducing the overall monthly crime rates" and found mixed results for displacing crime to other areas. But that doesn't get to the heart of the terrorism argument—which is essentially about "turning on" all cylinders of our surveillance system to catch the perpetrator of serious crimes.
The problem, critics point out, is that people out to commit serious crimes may avoid cameras. "For someone who is concerned about having their image caught, what we are seeing is that after the initial investments, there is a displacement of where terrorist attack occur," Molnar explains. This may be supported by a study, as cited by Surveillance Studies Centre at Queen's University: "In San Francisco, a study by the City and the University of California Berkeley found violent crime decreased within 250 metres of ‘open-street’ surveillance cameras, but increased beyond 250 metres." Displacement is still very difficult to measure, as the ACLU explains.
In many of the county's past major instances of domestic terrorism, the crimes were apparently solved largely without them. Eric Rudolph, who was convicted for the Atlanta Olympics bombings of 1996, was nabbed in part thanks to a photograph (in which he was a blob), but mostly thanks witnesses. Oklahoma City federal building bomber Timothy McVeigh was caught essentially by chance, after a cop pulled him over for driving without a license plate. Ted Kaczynski's bombing career was halted when family members recognized his writings. And the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York City was solved after investigators found a vehicle identification number in the rubble, then followed a trail of clues. Video surveillance didn't solve those crimes, but, then again, it's entirely possible that more surveillance would have helped solve those crimes more quickly.
In the case of the Olympics, more cameras seem pragmatic. The games practically scream "international target." Marathons are in a similar category. Same goes for federal buildings and trade centers—the government has an interest in surveying them for safety. But what about everywhere else: every city corner, every park, every coastline? Put them up now, put them everywhere, and leave them up indefinitely? Lots of people are saying, yes, yes, absolutely.
"We're concerned about America becoming a place in which cameras are so pervasive that we can't go about our lives without being tracked by the government," responds Jamela Debelak, technology and liberty director for the ACLU of Washington. She acknowledges that "there may be reasonable grounds for the government to have cameras in certain very high-risk areas, but these need to have controls on how long data is stored and there should be public input on the policies."
None of this is to say that cameras don't have their place. Everyone I spoke to acknowledges they can help identify suspects in some cases (for instance, they helped find suspect in the 2005 London bombings, but none of those cameras prevented the attack). Potentially volatile sporting events and incidents where violence is expected are good examples.
So the question isn't whether they are ever beneficial or should ever be used (again, everyone agrees that sometimes they should be), but how much America throws itself whole-hog and billions of dollars into blanketing the nation with a permanent video surveillance network. The ACLU's Debelak warns that "such persistent monitoring would have serious costs to our freedom." Most troubling for the ACLU is misappropriation of the footage to spy on political protesters, and using high-level surveillance for low-level crimes that, in essence, criminalize poverty.
As most everyone online knows, cameras are a very small part of the government's growing surveillance network: More significant is the vast, largely invisible, mines of electronic data.
Every day, we're all generating loads of records: bank transactions, bus passes, text messages, tweets, and probably lots of other trails we're not even conscious of. The CIA seems intent on sweeping all of that data and saving it indefinitely. The CIA's chief technology officer, Gus Hunt, spoke last month about their strategy, saying, "The value of any piece of information is only known when you can connect it with something else that arrives at a future point in time. Since you can't connect dots you don't have, it drives us into a mode of, we fundamentally try to collect everything and hang on to it forever." The CIA has also reportedly committed $600 million to Amazon for cloud computing services—apparently to save all those data.
The result is sort of what we we saw this last week: The federal government turned on its surveillance system (for a good cause). But it's the vastness of that system and public support to expand surveillance that has privacy hounds concerned (that it could be used for bad). And since we don't know how much data the government is tracking, it's nearly impossible to file a complaint in court to challenge it. It's like going bow-hunting for deer in a dark forest.
Yes, yes, yes.
Privacy is already lost, cameras are already around, our activity is already recorded. What's it matter if the government installs a few million new cameras in urban centers? What's left to give up? Why even have the conversation?
There are plenty of surveillance experts and critics who could answer those questions in ways much more intelligently than I ever could. In fact, I contacted several experts for this post, and many asked not to go on the record. The national ACLU declined to be interviewed last week because "we're not commenting on this today," a spokesman told me; I interviewed an expert who later asked not to be named or quoted. And I get that: Anyone who questions a surveillance state in this rah-rah environment risks being ridiculed as a naive Pollyanna liberal (I'm sure some comments on this post—if anyone even reads this long, boring, hand-wringing post—will accuse me of practically being a terrorist sympathizer). But so what if raising these questions is politically toxic? The liberals protesting the Iraq War were mocked (even by this newspaper), and anyone who questioned the Patriot Act was considered a traitor (it was called the "Patriot Act" for a reason). But those dissenters were right. They weren't Pollyanna, they were Cassandra.
Terrorism is about instilling fear, about wanting you to believe that menace is behind every bush. To be played by a terrorist is to behave like menace actually is everywhere, to prepare for crime behind every corner by stationing a camera or willingly relinquishing all digital privacy.
"Even though this [bombing] is a very rare event, we tend to exaggerate the threat going down the road," Molnar points out. "There is very little that closed circuit television can do to actually prevent an attack. We are not just introducing technology to prevent, deter, or enhance possibility for arrest and capture, we are also changing the way we relate to one another."
"We turn communities of trust into communities of fear," he warns.
Before we do that, we should take a lesson from 9/11. Hold on a second. Look at the evidence. We should question government before capitulating to every sheriff and politician who proposes a larger, permanent surveillance network. Again, I'm not saying I oppose all new surveillance; I just hope we don't have another allergic reaction we'll regret in 12 years.