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Camerica?: Two Cheers (or Less) for the Indiscriminate Spread of Video Cameras in Public Areas

posted by:Gary Marx // 08:16 PM // August 09, 2005 // ID TRAIL MIX

In a case seen by millions of TV viewers on the evening news an Indiana mother was caught on videotape hitting her child in a public parking lot. How should such a case be viewed? Public comment has generally been supportive. There is a sense that justice has somehow been done -- an apparent abuser, who before the age of the instant replay would have gotten away with it is indisputably caught in the act.

The video’s documentary evidence is not dependent on the vagaries of memory, conflicting or fraudulent claims or the distortions of power. The camera is in one sense neutral, capturing all within its purview, regardless of the personal characteristics of the watched or the watcher. The low cost and ease of use may even contribute to the democratization of surveillance, offering a means to document mistreatment of the less powerful (in this case a child, but note also videos of police beatings or sexual harassment). The presence of the camera makes some persons feel more secure.

Nor is there much question about the legality of such taping. The courts have generally held that whether a topless celebrant at a festival, or fully clothed on a mall bench, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in public settings. In many U.S. states that even extends to surreptitious photographing up skirts and down blouses, unless a law specifically prohibits that. Nor is there such an expectation in “private” settings such as a backyard, for what is “publicly” offered to an overhead observer (whether satellite or video drone or neighbor in a high rise apartment).

But enthusiasm for the rapidly spreading, and minimally regulated, surveillance cameras needs to be tempered by awareness of their limitations. One issue involves validity. We need to ask, “does (or better can) the camera lie”? Is seeing believing? By what unexamined standard is a picture worth a multitude of words? Certainly as current computer generated films and advertisements suggest, with digital manipulation a realistic appearing visual record can be created showing anything.

But even absent technological tricks, we must avoid rushing to conclude that with a visual record things “are” necessarily as they seem. Meaning lies in interpretation beyond the physical depiction. Consider joking, play acting or manipulation. It might be that a video image of someone being struck is other than it appears to be (e.g., play-acting in which a punch is pulled at the last instant). Even with a real image, the camera is spatially (and often temporally) restricted. For example a rotating camera capturing a fight in progress, in which one person is clearly injuring another, is not necessarily evidence of assault. The person with the upper hand may simply be fighting back from an unprovoked attack that occurred off-camera. Or consider the pseudo-shop lifter stuffing an expensive item in his pocket in full view of the camera. He then moves out of the camera’s view, drops the item and exits the store, hoping for the chance to file a false arrest suit against the store when he stopped outside it.

The evidence for the camera’s crime reduction effectiveness is underwhelming to non-existent. Under limited conditions there may be some modest displacement of crime to areas without video cameras. Even the British Home Office has eventually had to conclude that the research evidence for deterrence is weak to non-existent.

Surveillance videos usually have a grainy B grade movie quality. Images are often unclear because of lack of light, angle or distance and identification of a person of interest is far from automatic. Certainly there are occasions when the camera helps in identifying a perpetrator. But even if the image is clear, it is interesting to note that as cameras have become ever more prevalent in banks, bank robberies have nonetheless continued to increase. Most cameras have blind spots. Sophisticated violators quickly learn how to neutralize or avoid new control techniques.

The cameras’ effectiveness may be further undercut by those doing the monitoring. Such work is generally done by poorly-trained and ill-paid workers with high rates of turn over. The monitoring is boring. Since most of the time nothing happens, the mind can easily wander missing that rare event, should it occur. There has been little public cost-benefit analysis of the tactic, nor comparison with other means of obtaining equivalent goals.

Those justifying the camera’s presence and expansion argue that, “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” This simplistic view makes the error of equating a desire for privacy with guilt. Yet we all have things to hide, or at least shield from broad public presentations, that do not involve wrong doing. These vary from strategic concerns, to bodily functions, to the frequent gap between behavior and inner feelings and attitudes. The advantages of varying forms and degrees anonymity are well known. Social creativity would be greatly weakened if a documentary record was made of everything.

A related argument involves the “techno-fallacy of more” --the assumption that, if some information is good, more must be better. Yet contrary to the ideas of the Enlightenment, there are times when it is better not to know. Consider the parking lot camera that records images of an amorous couple in the back seat of a car, or a secret meeting of feuding politicians or diplomats seeking to negotiate out of the public eye.

With respect to the loss of anonymity, political demonstrators may feel inhibited being recorded and not knowing who will have access to the tapes, or under what conditions. Nor is liberty significantly advanced when, as happened recently, a clerk in a gay video store can sell surveillance camera images of a customer (an actor, well known for his macho portrayals), to sensationalist media.

In surfacing and memorializing so much of what had been ephemeral, back stage behavior before the advent of the camera, we also run the risk of overloading control systems. There are far more rule violations than can ever be processed. Bringing these to public notice, when many will not be acted upon, can generate cynicism and concerns of discrimination. The use of discretion that is so central to wise decisions and justice in a complex and changing world can ironically be undermined by video cameras adopted in the hope of increasing accountability.

None of this is to argue against the appropriate use of video cameras. It is however to call for broader public discussion informed by research and clearer guidelines as the cameras become ever more common features of everyday life.


Gary T. Marx is emeritus professor MIT. Related articles can be seen at garymarx.net.

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