September 13, 2004

Fear itself  

Why is the city of Chicago obsessed with the videocamera? First, traffic cameras were placed at intersections around the city to catch red light violators (including, just a couple weeks ago, yours truly). Then police cameras with flashing blue lights designed for surveillance and crime deterrence were placed in high crime areas around the city (so that it's now very easy to tell when you've wandered into a bad neighborhood -- just look for the cameras). And now, the mayor has announced his plan to put 2000 cameras in public spaces all around the city to help improve emergency services and prevent terrorism.

This is all in keeping with the Chicago model, which concentrates authority in the mayor's office and doesn't fuss too much about process or constitutent rights. Obviously I haven't seen the cost-benefit on the camera installation and the projected improvement in emergency response, etc -- but I have no doubt this is the right choice from a safety standpoint, both in terms of lives and dollars. My guess is the privacy rights issues probably were taken into consideration as strictly a political input, and that the mayor's office (rightly) concluded people wouldn't mind much. This necessary political calculation was the reason behind the stepping stones (first the traffic cameras, then the police cameras); by introducing the more palatable cameras first, the mayor's office was able on the one hand to gauge public response, and on the other to help introduce constituents to the idea. The whole rollout was carefully planned and flawlessly executed...

You can probably tell I don't like the idea of being surveilled, but what bothers me even more is the anti-terror justification. Is terror really so great a threat in Chicago that we need 2000 cameras keeping track of everyone? There has never, to my knowledge, been a terrorist attack here, and there has been only one attack in the whole country in the past five years (an attack which btw probably wouldn't have been prevented by a bunch of networked videocamearas). London, mentioned in the article as having a less extensive system than the one on the table here, has been subject to numerous terrorist attacks over the past couple decades, which may make their concession to Big Brotherhood appropriate. But to all appearances, Chicago isn't London, and this amounts to calculated fearmongering, simply the seizure of privacy in Chicago by the mayor. As to his ultimate motivations, I can only guess.


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