Big Brother Is Watching

A recent news story about the installation of a pervasive video security system installed in Lancaster, PA caught my attention.  The massive camera installation makes this town, quite possibly, the most massively surveilled per capita town in the US.  To be sure, there is a place for video surveillance such as banks, businesses, and government building.  But not generally on public streets and in residential neighborhoods.  One county commissioner argues this:

“No one talks about it,” agreed Scott Martin, a Lancaster County commissioner who wants to expand the program. “Because people feel safer. Those who are law-abiding citizens, they don’t have anything to worry about.”  [emphasis added]

The exact reverse is true.  Law-abiding citizens should worry about this intrusion into privacy.  Even a well-intentioned government that claims the system is being installed for public safety should be called to task.  Just a couple of examples show how such a system erodes the liberties guaranteed Americans under the Constitution and the its amendments.

Consider the risk that teenagers seeking private access to birth control may be subject to should their parents, friends of their parents, or, indeed, someone holding a grudge against the teens have access to the video obtained by such camera systems.  The response of the parents is easy to infer.  Other parties simply need notify the parents that the teenagers entered a family planning clinic.  If the home situation is less than ideal, the teens may be subjected to verbal, emotional, or physical abuse as a result of trying to do the smart thing.  Certainly, it can be argued that the teens should be practicing abstinence rather than safe sex.  It is well-documented that teens, as a group, don’t practice abstinence and, worse, dispense with safe sex practices of fear (even just fear of embarrassment) and ignorance.  Setting up a system that gives “watchers” the ability, if not the lawful authority, to inform on them.

The Constitution guarantees the freedom associate and assemble.  That includes choosing whom we invite into our homes.  There are many scenarios where government video surveillance outside of a private home, or businesses, could be a problem.  For example:

  • A private political meeting involving someone who has not yet committed to public candidacy for public office or becoming involved in issue advocacy
  • An adulterous affair
  • Contact with a lawyer in preparation for a divorce
  • Religious gatherings
  • Religious proselytization
  • “Fringe” sexual behaviors such as the “swinger” lifestyle
  • A surprise birthday party or similar activity

Certainly, some of the activities cited above aren’t exactly moral behaviors.  It isn’t the place of government to make that judgement.  Some, such as the discovery of an adulterous affair, could lead to violence.  At the very least it would result in additional stress in an already stressful relationship.

Most organizations have policies in place to prevent the disclosure of information to unauthorized persons.  The news, however, routinely carries stories of “authorized” persons who abuse their authority and use the information that they have privileged access to for their own purposes or pass it to others.  This particular community may be successful with their internal controls and may use the system for the public safety purposes expressed; others may not be so lucky.