“A police state is characterized by bureaucracy, secrecy, perpetual wars, a nation of suspects, militarization, surveillance, widespread police presence and a citizenry with little recourse against police actions. ...
“We were once a society that valued individual liberty and privacy. Increasingly, however, we have morphed into a culture that has quietly accepted surveillance in virtually every area of our lives.”
— John Whitehead, “A Government of Wolves.”
If Schenectady County’s refusal to release police camera footage in connection with the now-infamous car chase involving Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy last month demonstrated anything, it’s that our privacy is increasingly controlled by the government.
All those paranoid fears expressed decades ago by George Orwell, H.G. Wells and Ray Bradbury are being realized now, as we continue to invite and allow the proliferation of cameras in our communities.
In the United States, it’s estimated that between police and private surveillance, we’re being watched by more than 30 million cameras, capturing more than 4 billion hours of our public lives every week.
Thousands of them are readily accessible online, but many others are held privately by government agencies, mostly police, and private companies and individuals.
According to crimefeed.com, the average American is filmed about 75 times per day.
Last week, state taxpayers, through the office of state Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, provided $1 million to install “smart” streetlights in Rotterdam. In addition to wi-fi and low-energy LED lights, the 38 new streetlights will be equipped with cameras.
While promoters of smart city technology touted the new equipment, they made no mention of what the cameras were designed to record, who would have access to them and what they would be used for.
They didn’t even say why they were needed in the first place.
In an interview last week with regard to the cameras, Santabarbara said his role was to provide the money for the technology. It’s up to local governments, he said, to decide how much access the public would have to them.
Normally, we’d side with the state ceding control to local government officials to decide how best to allocate resources locally. But that leaves citizens with an inconsistent municipal patchwork of laws, regulations and impediments that changes from border to border.
One major problem is that the people with the power to release that information more often than not say “no” more than “yes” when requests come in for access. Many times, they use the justification that the recordings are being compiled for law enforcement purposes — a blanket generalization that is regularly overused to keep information from the public.
Shouldn’t the subjects of these camera viewings, those of us whose lives are increasingly monitored by government cameras, be able to access those cameras to see what the government is learning about us?
Shouldn’t the state have a plan in place — with rules on who, what, where, when and why we can be videotaped — before handing out money for the arbitrary placement of cameras in our neighborhoods?
Shouldn’t the government holders of this information make it easy, not difficult, for the subjects of their voyeurism — us — to view the camera footage? As with other public information, we should be able to use our Freedom of Information Laws to access the cameras that are accessing our movements.
Giving the public unlimited free access to all the camera footage has its cautionary tales.
The American Civil Liberties Union lists a number of privacy concerns with providing unlimited access, including concerns that individuals and companies will use the information to track people’s movements for criminal purposes, private interests (wives tracking husbands) and marketing. They also say that in Britain, where cameras are even more prevalent than they are here, their value in catching or deterring criminals is overstated.
Yet we as a society seem, as Whitehead said, to be moving passively toward even more surveillance.
So we need rules. The rules should lean toward public access while ensuring some degree of privacy.
The IRS can’t deny you your own tax records, but they can deny them to someone else.
A woman who claims she was the victim of a road-rage/stalking incident by a public official should be able to obtain footage from cameras that might corroborate her story without waiting for a special prosecutor to get involved.
The best way to ensure the public’s trust in government is through transparency.
Government officials need to stop randomly purchasing and installing cameras all over the place without first publicly debating and disclosing the reasons why the cameras are needed and revealing how the citizens can gain access to those cameras.
We shouldn’t be in a rush to morph into a culture that quietly accepts surveillance without question.