Monday, 17 March 2008


The following opinion piece from the National Post on surveillance cameras, illustrates quite eloquently how ‘’feel-good’’ laws do practically nothing for the real criminals, while unnecessarily intrude into the law-abiding citizens’ lives.
We had better be careful what we wish for in the name of a false sense of security. With governments taking away our liberties steadily and consistently ‘’for our own good’’, we are giving away our fundamental rights willingly, to what we consider well intentioned governments, all too eager to protect us. Can we be so confident that governments, present and future, are to that point deserving of our trust for us to sign a ‘’carte blanche’’ for anything they deem good for us?

If the Angus Reid poll is accurate, 69% of people agreeing with such cameras, is a resounding alarm that too many people are all too willing to give in to any law, no matter how intrusive, in return of a false appeasement of their real or artificially induced fears.

I understand Canadians' support for more surveillance cameras in public spaces. In an era of terrorism and rising crime, it is intuitive to think more "eyes" for the police will make us safer.
The evidence, though, is that cameras do little to stop either crime or terrorism. Perpetrators quickly adopt tactics -- such as donning hooded sweatshirts and ski masks -- that make their identification nearly impossible on grainy security footage. Confident in their anonymity, criminals quickly resume offending.

And, of course, surveillance cameras, such as the 10,000 the Toronto Transit Commission is planning to install on its buses, street cars and subways, and in its bus shelters and subway stations, are an intrusion on our liberties. Even if they were effective against crime, I would still oppose them on privacy grounds. But as it happens, I am doubly opposed because they are intrusive and ineffective.

On Wednesday, pollster Angus Reid released survey results that indicate "69% of Canadians support the use of surveillance cameras to fight crime." Seventy per cent want more cameras in their local transit system and public spaces, and "63% say security is more important than privacy when it comes to surveillance cameras."

But as William O. Douglas, the long-est-serving U.S. Supreme Court justice ever, once wrote: "The right to be left alone is the beginning of all freedom." In other words, privacy is at the root of our liberty. And as Benjamin Franklin said, "They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither liberty or security."

The classic example of the ineffectiveness of security cameras is the 7/7 bombings in London.
In the immediate aftermath of those horrific attacks on subways and buses in July 2005, supporters of cameras became giddy about their potential. After all, within hours of the killing of 52 innocent Londoners, police had photos of the perpetrators boarding a train in Luton, north of London, and close-ups of them in Underground stations shortly before they exploded themselves.

But 52 people still died, despite the miraculous closed-circuit photography.
Since the bombings, only three people have been arrested for their involvement and none as a result of video surveillance.

The terrorists' bomb-making plant in Leeds was discovered because the suicide killers made the error of carrying ID with them, bits of which were found in the debris left over from the blasts. Forensics, not electronic eyes, shut down their murderous warehouse.

As for the three suspects apprehended, they captured in March of last year during an old-fashioned stakeout.

Because the bombers themselves were "cleanskins" -- persons not previously known to the police -- surveillance cameras would not have tipped police off to their imminent attacks, not even if the cameras had been mated to face-recognition software.

I enjoy as much as the next person television shows such as 24 and the BBC's excellent equivalent MI-5, but I am under no illusion that super agents using super computers are able to monitor terrorists in real time as they make their way through city streets and malls so they can be interdicted before they carry out their plots.

The best that can be hoped for from cameras is that they deter would-be terrorists. But cameras cannot actually prevent terrorism, unless a perpetrator is very dumb and slow and authorities are extraordinarily lucky.

Cameras aren't even all that good at helping prosecutors convict criminals after the fact. In Britain, where there are nearly five-million security cameras --almost as many as in the rest of the world combined -- the Home Office admits that in 80% of cases where camera evidence is available, it is of too poor quality even to be accepted by the courts, much less have any impact on the outcome of a trial.

A test of cameras in the Berlin subway two years ago convinced the German government to suspend plans to install them throughout the subway system. Of thousands of criminal incidents committed on the monitored lines, video footage was available in only 78 cases. In only a third of those was the footage of usable quality, and in most of those the crime was minor, such as turnstile jumping.

In the 1990s, New York City made great strides in cleaning up its subway system and streets. But it did so by putting more officers on platforms and trains. Police can see what cameras cannot, and they can respond immediately, rather than waiting to be summoned by those monitoring cameras.

Cameras are a sop, a symbolic reaction that merely enables timid politicians to say, "Look. See. We're doing something."

And, or course, they subject law-abiding citizens to scrutiny by the government when they have given the government no probable cause to warrant such watching.

Cameras are expensive and intrusive and, worst of all, ineffective.

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