Safety up, privacy down

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Am I the only one who hates being in photos but is still somehow disappointed when I get reprints and find myself missing?

I feel left out.

Then again, when a stray snapshot of me with closed eyes and mouth agape turns up, I'm thankful there aren't more.

Why am I mentioning this? Because I think my attitude toward photography is similar to that of most people toward security surveillance. They don't want to be watched, they really don't want to be watched doing something stupid, but they're glad it's there.

And today the movement toward surveillance of public space seems unstoppable.Downtown merchants in Cape Girardeau are clamoring for backup after storefront vandalism left them feeling unsafe and unprotected.

Several merchants have asked the police department to consider surveillance. They point to the city of Sikeston, which recently installed a network of 32 cameras in key locations around town.

Sikeston's mayor and director of public safety say the measure has been overwhelmingly applauded by citizens and has resulted in crimes prevented and criminals caught.

It's particularly useful, they say, in certain high-crime neighborhoods where collaboration with police has become taboo. Video cameras, it seems, never feel squeamish about snitching.

But while touring Sikeston Department of Public Safety's spiffy control room last week, I just couldn't help but feel a bit, ahhm ... searching for le mot juste ... slimy.

You see, to show off the power of the technology, Mayor Mike Marshall found a guy strolling down the sidewalk of a residential neighborhood and tracked him. The cameras, which can distinguish facial features from three blocks away, brought us up close and personal.

In a heartbeat we were in this guy's world. Close enough to tell when he last trimmed his nose hairs. "Intrusive or reassuring?" I wondered.

Proponents of surveillance will say one thing over and over: "If I'm not doing anything wrong, then why should it bother me?"

And that makes sense. Demanding privacy is very uncool.

In a culture where millionaire celebrities volunteer to have their lives taped for public amusement, privacy, like shame, is an endangered species. Something only weirdos feel.

But I defy anybody to tell me they act exactly the same while being watched as they do alone. It's impossible. French philosopher Michel Foucault understood this long ago when he wrote of a "Panopticon" where the all-seeing prison guard can control inmates simply by watching them.

I'd also ask readers to consider whether street surveillance is a fair way to enforce the law. I think police have a really tough job, but I'm not in favor of turning all police-work into desk-work.

Law enforcement is a cat-and-mouse game, and I kind of like that a free society still demands hard evidence and witness testimony. Just like in football where the referee could call a lineman for holding on every down, police could probably find crimes every minute of the day if given enough film. Jaywalking, littering, allowing a dog to poop where it shouldn't, "let's go to the replay."

Do we really want that?

I'm not trying to throw cold water on the whole idea. I'd be fine, for example, with cameras that are turned on only after midnight when most vandalism occurs. But let's all think before we sign away our privacy too casually.

TJ Greaney is a staff reporter for the Southeast Missourian.

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