From the White House to state capitals to city halls, our leaders have convinced the American people the world is a very dangerous place. We were attacked at home for the first time since Pearl Harbor, but our enemy is not a nation with defined boundaries. Rather, al Qaeda is an ideological group committed to the destruction of Western civilization.
Waging war overseas is not enough to protect us, says President Bush. The enemy could be among us, the enemy could be one of us. Under the guise of national security, the Bush administration and Congress have ridden roughshod over our privacy and free speech rights.
Now mayors, city and town councils and police chiefs here in the Valley are doing the same. The Department of Homeland Security has funneled millions of dollars to local law enforcement agencies. Communities are using those funds to establish video surveillance systems, including cameras placed in secret locations. With great excitement, Fresno Mayor Alan Autry and Police Chief Jerry Dyer showed video of a crime being committed and announced an expansion of the system from 47 to 250 cameras. Ripon has installed 20 surveillance cameras. Clovis has 35 cameras.
Is a crime captured on film even evidence that video surveillance reduces crime and makes us safer?
Britain has a third of the world’s closed circuit cameras. It is estimated that the average Briton is filmed 300 times per day. Yet, when the British Home Office examined the effect of cameras on crime, no significant impact on violent crime was found. In fact, the British studies showed that video surveillance did not reduce crime or the fear of crime. Nor does video surveillance act as a deterrent to criminals, according to American and British studies. There is limited evidence that video footage is used in prosecutions. Finally, a University of Cincinnati study found that video surveillance simply shifted crime beyond the view of the cameras.
Video surveillance cannot be deemed a success. It costs a lot of money and has not produced the anticipated benefits. Despite the lack of evidence, however, communities in the Central Valley continue to expand video surveillance. Worse, with public safety budgets stretched thin, video surveillance systems come at the expense of proven crime reduction-measures such as better lighting, increased foot patrols and more community policing.
If video surveillance doesn’t make us safer, it does create the potential for government to monitor ordinary people engaged in innocent and constitutionally protected behavior in public. If cameras are combined with other technologies—such as identification software, face and eye scans and radio frequency identification—the danger increases. Governments will be able to collect an enormous amount of information on ordinary individuals. This threatens our First and Fourth Amendment rights.
The federal Patriot Act already shreds Fourth Amendment protections by removing the need of probable cause for surveillance and searches. The Military Commissions Act has dismantled due process rights by denying habeas corpus to prisoners in Guantanamo Bay or anyone declared an enemy combatant. The pending Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act threatens First Amendment protections with the possibility that thought—speech and belief—will be criminalized.
President Bush has authorized warrantless electronic eavesdropping, opening domestic mail and physical searches by the National Security Agency. The FBI has established the Investigative Data Warehouse, with more than 560 million records, and monitors peaceful groups like the Quakers, the Arab-American Anti-Defamation Committee and the ACLU. The Pentagon has established the Threat and Local Observation Notice (TALON) database and collected data on anti-war activists across the country.
Benjamin Franklin warned that “they who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security.”
The rapid expansion of surveillance has happened without proper judicial, congressional and public oversight. We have given up liberty for security. Our government has curtailed our civil liberties and created a surveillance society that conjures up Orwellian visions.
Connecting the dots leads us to Big Brother, a partnership between federal, state and local agencies, but we can stop this:
- Tell Congress to close Guantanamo Bay, to repeal the Patriot Act and the Military Commissions Act and to prevent passage of the Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act.
- Tell our city councils to eliminate video surveillance, because civil liberties are more important than false security.
If video surveillance does not reduce crime or make us safer, why use it?
Scott Key is a faculty member at Fresno Pacific University. He teaches in the School of Humanities, Religion and Social Sciences as well as the School of Education.