Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Watching our Liberties Exit Stage Left


I am concerned over video justice whether it is red-light cameras, speed enforcement cameras, or video taping public areas for viewing by law enforcement. The idea of using technology to keep an ever watchful eye on American citizens wrong. Don't misunderstand my intentions, I am not against using technology to help a law enforcement officer do his duty, I am against technology in place of law enforcement officers. I am all for getting a warrant to legally do surveillance of a criminal suspect. I am all for police officers having video camera's in their police cars. I am against the continuous recording of public places on the off-chance it might catch a citizen doing something illegal.

I wrote two columns for the Daily News. Both columns are limited in the number of words allowed. I am posting both columns here in their original unabridged format. As it turns out both columns were written in March. The first in 2009 and the second in 2011.

In my second column I included several quotations from the OPC Guidelines for the Use of Video Surveillance of Public Places by Police and Law Enforcement Authorities. I like a lot of what it says.
Other links:
Washington State Constitution
Protests Against Surveillance Cameras
Ineffectiveness of Surveillance Cameras
Photo Radar Scam

Column #1: Daily News, March 2009.

In October of 2008 the Daily News reported about placing video surveillance cameras in several locations around Pullman. If the cameras are installed we will watch our civil liberties exit stage left.

The proposal seems benign; however, it is anything but. We are told the video would only be recorded and saved for three to four days. The cameras, we are told, would not be monitored. This proposal brings to mind a quotation from Fakediploma.com in an article titled “Washington State Citizens Against National ID”.
Under the guise of safety and security you are asked to give up your most personal information to the government’s safekeeping. Using the governments favorite phrase ‘…the need to know’, we don’t feel the government has - the need to know - such personal information. The fundamental right to privacy is asked to give way in order to achieve the illusion of security.

Don’t mistake this proposal to be on the same level as video cameras in banks, convenience stores, and various other private businesses. The difference between the cameras the city wants to install and those in the above locations are great. The cameras would be on public streets. They would be controlled by the government.

I should be able to drive down the road, in a free country, without being monitored by my government. Our government was set up with the consent of those governed not the other way around.

Many people I have talked to believe that there is nothing wrong with putting surveillance cameras on Greek Row. But that is just the start. Mayor Johnson was even quoted as saying “this would just be the start”. As more funds are available more cameras can be installed. Soon they will be put into my neighborhood and your neighborhood.

Can we really believe that once the cameras are installed that they will never be monitored? According to an article in the Daily Evergreen, Mayor Johnson said the cameras would not be monitored, but only reviewed when a crime happened to try to identify those who committed the crime. But in the Daily News article it was pointed out the cameras could be viewed live the police in their patrol cars.

How long before the city decided that on major weekends the cameras should have someone watching them and dispatching police to suspicious activities? It probably would not be very long after that point of time that we have someone to monitor the cameras on all weekends. At some point, no doubt, there would be a call to expand the coverage of live monitoring of the cameras to include the whole week. We would need to hire some people to watch the cameras to report suspicious activities to the police. Your privacy would soon be in question.

The big issue with the government monitoring the cameras and possessing the cameras and recordings is that, unlike a convenience store, the government has the ability to impose sanctions on people. Those sanctions can be anything ranging from fines to jail time.

What happens when someone uses the freedom of information act to request copies of recordings? What if those recordings show something that you did, which was not criminal in nature, but one that was personal and embarrassing in nature? Could that cause damage to ones reputation?

During the arson fire it was pointed out we might have seen a car pass through the cameras and we could have had a possible suspect. What if you were the suspect? You will have to prove yourself innocent or risk being arrested. No alibi? That’s a problem. The police grill you as to why you were driving at three o’clock in the morning? This is a free country and you should be able to move around as you wish, no suspicion raised and no alibi’s needed.

The loss of personal liberties in the name of safety is not a fair trade off.

Scott McDonald, in the article “Uncle Sam Has All your Numbers“ poses a great point. The focus of the debate must be on liberty and freedom. The question must be: Does the government have any right, whatsoever, to maintain cameras focused on free citizens? The answer is “NO!”

Column #2: Daily News, March 2011.
Imagine, if you will, this utopia. It is a place where there are no guns. Everyone has free food, health care, and a place to live. No one is forced to hold down a job. Everyone is safe from crime and there are cameras to watch every move that someone makes. Those cameras are monitored 24/7. Want to live there? We have such a place right here in Whitman County. It is called jail. Sure you are secure, but you surely don’t have any personal liberties.

Unfortunately, the idea of placing government-run video cameras around the city of Pullman has resurfaced. Mayor Glenn Johnson and Police Chief Jenkins both support this issue. I disagree with the government running broad reaching video surveillance against its free citizens.

A number of people who don't see a problem with video cameras bring up two points over and over. One point being that stores and banks use video how is this any different. I argue the difference between the bank and the government is the government has a direct ability to abridge freedom. Point number two revolves around the idea that if you are not doing anything wrong then you have nothing to hide.

Government monitoring its citizens via video cameras is not about hiding things; it is about our rights explicitly spelled out in the state Constitution. Article 1 Section 7 says in part "No person shall be disturbed in his private affairs... without authority of law". Just because someone enters a public space doesn't mean he forfeits his expectation of privacy. One cannot be searched just because he is in public.

An article discussing guidelines for the use of video surveillance by law enforcement in public places exists on the Website for the Office of Privacy Commissioner (OPC) of Canada.
"Video surveillance of public places subjects everyone to scrutiny, regardless of whether they have done anything to arouse suspicion. At the very least it circumscribes, if it does not eradicate outright, the expectation of privacy and anonymity that we have as we go about our daily business.

The medium’s very nature allows law enforcement to observe and monitor the movements of a large number of persons, the vast number of whom are law-abiding citizens, where there are no reasonable grounds to be capturing a record of their activities."

Human's change their behavior when they are being watched. Whether it is seeing a police car and letting off the accelerator when driving down the street or stifling one's own speech when someone approaches. These changes, as noted by the Website, started a business where people can buy faux cameras to make people change their behavior. The OPC's Website continues "For these reasons, there is good reason to believe that video surveillance of public places by the police or other law enforcement authorities has a chilling effect on behaviour—and by extension on rights and freedoms."

My last column came out in March of 2009. In those two years Pullman has neither become more dangerous nor crime ridden. Pullman still has issues with crime, as does every city, but we are not anywhere to the point where the movements of the citizens should be captured on video. "The problem to be addressed by video surveillance must be pressing and substantial, of sufficient importance to warrant overriding the right of innocent individuals to be free from surveillance in a public place." (OPA Website)

One person posed a question to me asking how it is different when a police officer is in public watching people and a video camera is in a public place watching people. The police officer is looking for a criminal activity taking place when he sees none he moves along. At some point in the future he will check back upon the area. A video camera on the other hand is constantly recording all citizens no matter what they are doing.

I would like to close with a final concept as written by the OPC. "Video surveillance of public places nonetheless presents a challenge to privacy, to freedom of movement and freedom of association, all rights we take for granted in Canada [and America]. This is especially true when the surveillance is conducted by police or other law enforcement authorities."

Please stop by http://palousitics.blogspot.com/ where you can read my previous column and this column both unabridged due to the limitation of space.

No comments: