Sunday, March 7, 2010

Embracing Little Brother or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Electronic Surveillance

A recent Cedar Rapids Gazette article says that downtown Iowa City businesses, tired of “bad behavior” on the pedestrian mall, will be installing surveillance cameras outside their buildings to discourage crime. Ben Stone of the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa said that the group does not support the move. While the ACLU would be right to oppose more government surveillance (as they often do), in this instance I don‘t think electronic surveillance is all bad.

We should oppose more government surveillance because we already have so much of it. Some would argue that we already live in an Orwellian surveillance state. In Privacy International’s 2007 ranking of 47 industrialized nations, the United States ranked near the bottom for privacy protections, falling into the “Endemic Surveillance Societies” category. Only Thailand, Taiwan, United Kingdom, Singapore, Russia, China, and Malaysia tied with or scored lower than the United States. If the American public is already under the government’s microscope, how can we justify more private surveillance?

Firstly, it matters who is doing the surveilling and where. The businesses on Iowa City’s ped mall, for instance, shouldn’t be able to place cameras where there is some expectation of privacy, such as in dressing or restrooms, but why NOT facing the public walkways around their property? When we are in public areas we can have no expectation of privacy from being seen or photographed. Image if a photographer, taking a wide shot of Times Square in New York, had to get release forms signed by everyone of the thousands of people who may be in the photo. They don’t have to because such a requirement would obviously be impractical. The same principles apply with other forms of observation technology.

Private security cameras and portable recording devices are becoming more and more prevalent with business owners and private citizens. If we call the government’s surveillance organization “Big Brother,” perhaps we can call these private efforts “Little Brother.” (I didn’t come up with that term, I read it somewhere.) Little Brother often helps the government, by supplying video of bank robbers or shoplifters for instance, but it can also keep an eye on the government as well.

The first example of Little Brother watching government officials that springs to my mind is the famous Rodney King beating video. In this footage shot by a bystander with a video camera, several Los Angeles police officers are seen beating Rodney King after he led them on a high-speed chase. King was a drunken convict who was resisting arrest, so whether or not he deserved a few love taps remains open for debate. Regardless, the incident was widely seen as blatant police brutality when it was shown repeatedly on television and led to the 1992 Los Angeles riots and federal charges against four officers.

Another, more recent, example was during the 2009 Iranian election protests. While the traditional media was largely blacked out by the Iranian government, protesters with cell phone cameras were able to record the governments brutal suppression of the protests and transmit the images to the world with some help from social networking sites.

A less epic example occurred during Washington D.C.’s recent blizzards. Some D.C. locals got together for a snowball fight after the idea spread on the internet site Twitter. Things went alright at the snowball fight until a red Hummer passing by got zinged with a snowball. A plain clothes D.C. police officer, Mike Baylor, hopped out and confronted the revelers without identifying himself as a cop. Baylor pulled his sidearm which caused several bystanders to call 911 about an armed man. This caused more police to show up, at least one of whom also drew his pistol.

Despite many cell phone videos of Baylor waving his pistol available on the internet, Assistant Police Chief Pete Newsham stated that, “There was no police pulling guns on snowball people.” He repeated that lie to several news outlets. Mainstream media like The Washington Post unquestioningly declared Chief Newsham’s version to be the official truth. The Post even ignored the eyewitness account of one of their own staffers who was present at the snowball fight. Luckily, bloggers and smaller newspapers like the Washington City Paper, actually investigated the story (imagine!) by watching the videos and interviewing witnesses (including the Post employee) and exposed Newsham’s story as the deceitful cover-up that it was. Score another one for Little Brother!

We will always need to guard against egregious abuse of our privacy by Little Brother, just as we need to roll back Big Brother’s surveillance state. I don’t want Little Brother tapping my phone or ransacking my house any more than I want Big Brother to. But when Big Brother menacingly warns, “We’re watching you,” I want Little Brother to confidently reply with the same phrase.

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