Over at the Washington Examiner, Tim Carney nails those who are calling for more police cameras after the Boston attacks:
Law enforcement in Boston used cameras to ID the bombing suspects, but not police cameras. Instead, authorities asked the public to submit all photos and videos of the finish-line area to the FBI, just in case any of them had relevant images. The surveillance videos the FBI posted online of the suspects came from private businesses that use surveillance to punish and deter crime on their property.
So it turns out we already have plenty of cameras on the street. They’re not government cameras, but rather cameras owned and operated by private individuals and businesses. In a bout of public spiritedness, these pedestrians and businesses willingly shared their videos with law enforcement. Even if the crime had not been so notorious, the police could expect public cooperation — what merchant wouldn’t share his surveillance tapes to aid in a murder investigation?
So what do we gain by having the government run its own cameras? That would mean the police wouldn’t need to turn to the public for help. This would create efficiencies, but it seems the public responded pretty efficiently last week.
There must be a balance between security and privacy, but camera advocates are pushing all the weight in one direction. London right now is under the watch of at least 500,000 government-owned security cameras. (Ironically, there are at least 32 cameras within 200 yards of the flat where George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four.) No American city is as surveilled as London, but Headmistress Bloomberg is feverishly trying to catch up: Lower Manhattan alone currently has 3,000 security cameras. In contrast, Boston has only 150 government cameras, yet the bombing suspects were captured relatively quickly thanks, as Carney notes, to public spiritedness.
Cameras are a tempting solution, but they also give others power over us — to watch us and monitor us. We ought to consider that before we demand more government surveillance in the name of security.
UPDATE: Our resident literature expert Matthew Walther informs me that Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four mostly on the Scottish isle of Jura and not at his London flat as I said. He’s right and I regret the error.