New Orleans Is it just in downtown Boston near Copley Square or are security and surveillance cameras everywhere in our cities. During the recent bombing at the Marathon reports attributed the breakthroughs in the investigation to meticulous viewing of hundreds of hours of video footage around the area which allowed the police and FBI to finally get a clear photo shot of a couple of guys with backpacks and baseball caps which led to the eventual identification and capture of the suspects. Was this only possible in Boston or is this an everywhere thing now? More importantly, should our expectations be premised on the disappearance of any last semblance of privacy when it comes to public space?
In many cities there are now video cameras that can catch a shot of your vehicle and your license plate and identify you as you are speeding or running a light. This system exists in New Orleans now, though it took years for the city to find a contractor that would install cameras that actually worked and took pictures, rather than just a contractor that collected the money and put stuff up in intersections on street lights that looked like cameras. When you get a letter from the City with a picture of your truck, front and back, all that is really left is the pain of writing the check and finding a stamp, because the great argument that you might have had with the police about whether the light was yellow is over and gone.
Since Boston, I’ve been looking more closely at the camera layouts on our street corners. In addition to the traffic cameras on a number of intersections there is a smaller, dark camera mounted above the streets. A friend trying to quixotically challenge some tickets was told there were cameras up there for other purposes that they were “not allowed” to discuss. The impression was that those cameras were more in the Homeland Security jurisdiction than the local forces in blue shirts riding under bubble-tops.
Many of these cameras in Boston likely belonged to building owners and shopkeepers, and I doubt we have any idea how ubiquitous they are. A friend walked me through his bakery in Little Rock a couple of years ago, and I was shocked when we got to the bakery office to see a bank of screens running video from all angles, part of which was to monitor each cash register, but it also included customers obviously and any action nearby. If someone accused the bakery of keeping their credit card, they could actually prove it was handed back over.
All of this was of course fully legit. But, you have to begin to wonder, if you are out on the streets of the city, how many times your picture is being taken and what might become of all of this. Of course there was abuse even in Boston. Reportedly folks on 4chan.org and Reddit, both of which allow anonymous posting, were “crowdsourcing” video trying on their own to identify suspects. The New York Post showed a picture of one such misidentified fellow, a young student with a backpack who was afraid to leave the house until a real suspect was identified. All of this seems more like high-tech modern vigilantism, than public safety precaution.
Boston was a wakeup call on a whole lot of levels, but the fact that we are all now on a continuous candid camera film loop, is worth a lot of thought and some serious debate in the future as well.