By STEVE FRIESS and JESSICA MEYERS | 4/21/13 6:56 AM EDT
Americans hate Big Brother — until moments like this.
Police state paranoia has long stoked angst and outrage, until an incident like the Boston Marathon bombings takes place and the nation heaves a sigh of relief that security cameras gazed unblinkingly upon Beantown’s streets and sidewalks.
Eyes in the sky — cameras that keep tabs on possible red-light runners, peer out at ATM users and stand sentry for commercial businesses — provided investigators key intelligence that led to identifying suspects in the attack. A department store camera held the much-viewed footage released by the FBI.
The developments have once again pitted personal rights against public safety. Politicians at every level — from the sheriff in Tampa to members of Congress — are urging the deployment of more surveillance and law enforcement access to captured material. Civil libertarians and privacy advocates, just as predictably, are preaching restraint.
“There is going to be more of a push to have more cameras on the streets, and it will be difficult to resist that push,” said Neil Richards, a privacy advocate and law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. He authored a Harvard Law Review paper last month titled “The Dangers of Surveillance,” in which he wrote that the amount of observation these days “should give us pause.”
“The difficult balance is to have them [cameras] there for extraordinary efforts such as what we’ve seen this week but not for us to live in an emergency situation all the time,” he said.
Security cameras began popping up in American subways and on government buildings en masse soon after the Sept. 11 attacks and have remained a point of controversy since. But they’ve become background noise in places like London, which pioneered the installation of public cameras to fend off attacks by the Irish Republican Army. Israel has had systems in place for years.
Bombings on American soil in recent years — like the 2008 Times Square incident — have only spurred public support for more surveillance.
“If you are not safe in your home and if you are not safe in the street, then your privacy becomes kind of a hollow concern,” said Jim Pasco, the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, who noted a smaller outcry from civil liberty groups this time.
While some suggest that muted response reflects a growing comfort among Americans with the idea of being watched, privacy advocates worry that that complacency and the comfort of surveillance in trying times is eroding rights.
“I don’t know any civil libertarian who is seriously arguing that cameras are not valuable in these high-risk events,” said Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor. “But even police states can’t deter all attacks. So that’s the kind of dialogue we need but that won’t occur.”
Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the former Homeland Security chairman, joined a parade of officials post-Boston calling for increased surveillance.
“I do favor more cameras,” King told MSNBC on Tuesday. “They’re a great law enforcement method and device. And again, it keeps us ahead of terrorists, who are constantly trying to kill us.”
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was in England during the 2005 London subway attacks, marveled to Bloomberg News on Friday about the city’s vast network of cameras and its subsequent ability to name suspects in hours. London has “a much more efficient system than even they have in New York today,” he said.
Others echoing that view included Hillsborough County, Fla., Sheriff David Gee, who told a Tampa TV station: “Even if it intrudes on some of our personal liberties, we’re not going to allow these things to happen, and we’re going to subject ourselves to whatever security measures we need to make sure we’re safe and our children are safe.”
Those fearing overreach point out that security cameras may enable capture but haven’t prevented attacks.
“The only way to use these cameras to prevent crime is to have blanket surveillance, to have someone monitoring every intersection and nook and cranny, and that’s where we have problems,” said Hanni Fakhoury, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The deterrent effect of cameras remains blurry. A 2011 study by the Department of Justice found that cameras installed in public spaces reduced violent crime by 38 percent in Baltimore but had almost no effect in Washington, D.C.
The Boston area has about 150 cameras operated by government entities. By contrast, downtown Manhattan has more than 3,000.
Fakhoury and others would like to see Congress create more guidelines on surveillance’s public role and officials’ access to it. In most cases, these decisions are made at the local level by cities and police departments. That lack of uniformity opens people up to wildly varied expectations of privacy.
In coming years, those cameras are likely to get enhanced by artificial intelligence and imbued with face-recognition ability and algorithms that can tell them what to look for in an effort to prevent crime. Field tests are already underway on the MUNI system in San Francisco, a prospect that creates the possibility of automated racial profiling, Fakhoury said.
Pasco said local law enforcement already struggles daily with the balance between privacy and safety.
“Nobody is more mindful of it,” he said. “But we’re also mindful of the fact that technology moves at a warp speed and provides a unique opportunity to enhance public safety in a time when resources are strained and communications and transportations are so sophisticated. It’s easier to be a criminal than a law-abiding citizen.”
The Boston case, Richards said, serves as an example of that balance struck “remarkably well. Boston police have been being very respectful of civil liberties.” He said the debate over the existence of cameras is probably moot and may require re-examination.
“I don’t know whether there are enough cameras or too many cameras, but I know the cameras were there and helped the Boston Police to solve this crime in a matter of days,” he said. “Maybe we need better cameras. I don’t think we would tolerate more cameras on every corner any more than we would tolerate police officers on every corner.”