Surveillance Society

In the 1970s and ’80s – as a response to Irish Republican Army attacks – the British government installed an extensive network of closed-circuit television surveillance cameras (known as the "ring of steel") in central London. British authorities credit these cameras with being able to quickly identify the bombers in the July 2005 subway and bus terrorist attacks, as well as those alleged to be involved with the two would-be London car bombs found on June 29, 2007. Now there are calls for similar surveillance systems to monitor public spaces in the United States. According to former D.C. Chief of Police Charles Ramsey, the nation’s capital "must and will expand its use of surveillance cameras, much like London, which uses 150,000 cameras to monitor its population." In New York City, the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative will have over 100 cameras operating by the end of this year, and by 2010 there could be as many as 3,000 cameras.

Images from surveillance cameras – many of them of convenience-store robberies, such as this one in Philadelphia – are a daily staple of local and national evening news. In May 2005, a security camera caught this brutal assault of an 83-year-old woman in the Foggy Bottom section of Washington, D.C. (near the State Department) . And cameras at the Target in Overland Park, Kans., captured images of Edwin Hall, who was arrested for the kidnapping and murder of 18-year-old Kelsey Smith (her abduction was also caught on video).

Advocates of extensive deployment of surveillance cameras argue that they are the equivalent of putting a police officer on every corner. Yet in each of the above instances, the presence of surveillance cameras did not prevent any of the perpetrators from committing their crimes. And despite its comprehensiveness, London’s ring of steel did not prevent the July 7, 2005, subway bombings or the attempted car bombings in London last month. At best, the cameras have been helpful forensics tools to identify suspects after the fact.

Beyond the question of whether security cameras would make us safer by preventing terrorist attacks (the evidence to date is that they won’t) is the issue of government surveillance of its citizenry and the risks posed to civil liberties and privacy. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative "is a major step toward blanket police monitoring of law-abiding New Yorkers." Of course, the standard retort is: "If you’re not doing anything wrong, you don’t have anything to worry about." The problem is defining what "wrong" is. One example cited by NYPD spokesperson Paul Browne is a car repeatedly circling the same block. If you’ve ever been to the Big Apple (or any other large, densely populated city with heavy car traffic), driving around the block looking for parking is pretty normal – hardly behavior that should be considered suspicious.

There is also the question of potential abuse of surveillance by authorities. Paul Browne asserts that surveillance cameras "would be used to intercept a threat coming our way, but not to collect data indiscriminately on individuals." But during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York, police aboard a helicopter used infrared technology to videotape a nighttime demonstration, and part of their surveillance included filming a couple embracing on a rooftop, which was eventually posted on the Internet.

And then there is the very real problem of mission creep. While the rationale for installing surveillance cameras is to prevent terrorism, inevitably they will end up being used for purposes unrelated to terrorism. For example, the New York surveillance system will include license plate readers, which will likely be used as part of a yet-to-be-approved program to charge drivers a fee to enter Manhattan below 86th Street (which will undoubtedly help pay for the costs of the system – $25 million for the first phase, $90 million total, and $8 million annual operating costs). But monitoring and enforcing a traffic congestion relief program has nothing to do with preventing terrorism – unless the only people driving cars below 86th Street in New York City without having paid the fee are terrorists.

And if the cameras and law enforcement resources are being used to enforce non-terrorist-related traffic and other violations, that means – by definition – they are less able or unable to prevent a terrorist attack. I experienced this phenomenon firsthand when I flew into La Guardia Airport during a period of heightened security. The sedan driver who was scheduled to pick me up was detained by police officers for slowing down (not stopping or parking) to look for me as I was coming out of the terminal. Two police cars and four officers were involved in issuing tickets to my driver and several other drivers. But the 20-30 minutes spent doing so meant that they weren’t guarding the terminal against would-be car bombers.

Ultimately, surveillance cameras are just another feel-good homeland security measure (and in the case of New York City, they will also probably be used as a means to generate revenue – much like red-light cameras – unrelated to preventing terrorism). As such, they are a reminder that we should heed Benjamin Franklin’s admonition: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.