In the wake of the Boston Marathon attack last month, considerable attention is being paid to surveillance cameras, which played a key role in the identification of the two attackers; their identification led within days to the killing of one and the arrest of the other. Had they not been identified, they might have escaped from the Boston area and committed a terrorist attack in New York City or elsewhere.
Many businesses (notably banks) and even homes have surveillance cameras nowadays. Usually they are pointed at the interior of the building though sometimes also or instead at the entrance to or the grounds of the building. These uses of surveillance cameeras are uncontroversial. But there is controversy over surveillance cameras that are owned by or form part of a network of surveillance cameras that is accessible to government, especially when, as is increasingly common, the surveillance cameras are technologically sophisticated and can for example enlarge the photographed
images, take pictures at night, enable face recognition by matching facial features of a person photographed by the camera with a database of facial features, and even follow a vehicle or pedestrian as it or he goes out of the range of one camera and into the range of another.
Most surveillance cameras are privately owned and operated and therefore do not provide coverage of vehicles (and sometimes their drivers or passengers), or of pedestrians other than the entrance to the private establishment. But some cities, like London, New York, and Chicago (and many others, including many much smaller ones, as well), install large numbers of surveillance cameras outdoors (for example on lamp posts), where they can photograph vehicles and pedestrians. Moreover, many owners of private businesses or other private institutions (or public institutions, such as public schools, that may be part of a different part of government from the part to which the police or other
law enforcement agencies belong) agree to give the police or some other law enforcement agency access to their surveillance cameras, thus creating a much richer surveillance network than the government would have if it were limited to placing surveillance cameras in public places. So when for example one reads that Chicago now has 22,000 surveillance cameras, one is to understand that the Chicago police department has access to a network of 22,000 surveillance cameras; only a relatively small number are owned by the police.
So what are the costs and benefits of these surveillance networks? These seem to be largely unknown. The financial costs probably are small, since most of the cameras are private and the network as a whole probably operates as a substitute for a number of police who would otherwise have to be watching personally the users of streets, sidewalks, parks, and other public spaces. The benefits of the surveillance camera networks include preventing crimes (as by observing suspicious behavior in time to head off a terrorist attack or other crime), deterring criminals (including, of course, terrorists) by increasing the likelihood that they will be apprehended and successfully prosecuted, apprehending criminals who have not been deterred, and, by providing evidence for use in criminal prosecutions, helping to convict criminals. But I am not aware of studies that enable these benefits to be estimated, even crudely. Obviously there are benefits, however, and the costs of terrorist attacks and other murder sprees are such that the expected benefits of comprehensive surveillance are likely to be substantial.
The major costs, or at least the costs that people worry about, are of two kinds. One is the potential for abuse by government, and is the focus of civil liberties organizations, which invoke, though inappropriately, the “telescreens” in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948), whereby “Big Brother” (the totalitarian government depicted in the novel) watches the interior of every home. Our government is not totalitarian, obviously, though there have been abuses of government surveillance, notably in the Cold War, and surveillance within the home is more intimidating than surveillance in public.
The greater concern is invasion of privacy; many people don’t like the idea of being watched, even in public, by government monitors, even if there are no abuses. I find this concern difficult to understand, and I don’t think it’s actually widely shared. Even before the Boston Marathon attack focused attention on the security benefits of surveillance cameras pointed at streets and sidewalks, surveillance cameras public as well as private were widely endorsed.
Although “privacy” has positive connotations and is greatly valued by most people, most people don’t think of streets and sidewalks as private places, because they are open to personal observation (including eavesdropping) by strangers, including police, journalists, and (other) snoopers. The incremental invasion of privacy by the photograph seems to most people offset by the benefits in enhanced security.
More interetingly, the social as distinct from private value of privacy is easily exaggerated. After all, as a practical matter, privacy means concealment; and with some exceptions (such as trade secrecy), concealment is more often a social bad rather than a social good. People conceal aspects of themselves that might cause others to shun them or, more generally, transact with them on less favorable terms; privacy is thus, to exaggerate slightly, a form of fraudulent marketing of oneself. Against this characterization it can be argued that people often exaggerate the significance of personal aspects of a person that everyone prefers to conceal, such as psychiatric or other medical impairments, an arrest record, a business failure, a criminal relative. But this is a paternalistic ground governmental protection for privacy. The less protection for privacy there is, the better behaved people are likely to be and also the more realistic they are likely to be in evaluating the disfavored “private” characteristics of other people.
Still, there is an argument that privacy is inverse to conformity; that creativity tends to be correlated with nonconformity; and hence that a population is likely to be more creative if there is considerable legal protection of privacy. I think this is an argument worth taking seriously, but that it has little or no application to security cameras in public places.