If the Boston Marathon bombing doesn’t make the case for surveillance cameras in urban areas, nothing will.
Without those images of the backpack-bearing Tsarnaev brothers captured by a commercial camera, authorities might still be trying to figure out who committed that heinous act. Yes, there are potential civil liberty issues, but as long as the cameras only monitor public spaces and their images are kept confidential by law enforcement agencies, their use as a security tool must come first. More of them are needed, not fewer.
The fear, of course, is that Big Brother will be watching you. But that’s exactly what we want criminals and terrorists to think. It just might deter them. And if it doesn’t, as in Boston, then at least the cameras, which these days are capable of high-resolution color pictures, can be useful in discovering the perpetrator.
That is what happened in Boston, and has happened on many occasions in cities, from London to New York to Schenectady, that have come to rely on these cameras. Conversely, they can be used to eliminate someone as a suspect, or even clear someone wrongly accused, like the Scotia smoke shop owner who was arrested last month on charges of selling cocaine to a police informant and then exonerated when security cameras (in this case his own) proved he was innocent.
There should be no expectation of privacy in public places, especially in the age of smartphones, where photos and videos are taken at events of all kinds and posted on the web.
But citizens should be able to expect that photos of them taken by government security cameras not be shared with the public — except in cases like Boston, where the FBI did just that for the purpose of identifying and capturing the suspects. Nor should the photos be used to prosecute minor offenses, like smoking a joint; they should be limited to real crimes. Nor should they be used to troll — i.e. follow ordinary people around just to see what they’re up to.
So far, it appears, government surveillance cameras haven’t been abused; the information has been kept confidential and used only to solve crimes. But clear, explicit rules are needed to make sure things stay that way as these cameras become more prevalent. And they should.