Do crime cameras make us safer or just undermine our privacy?

While we've grown used to these security cameras in our malls and at stoplights, the influx of surveillance cameras in our public spaces should be of great concern to everyone.

Josh Wolf
Josh Wolf first became interested in the power of the press after writing and distributing a screed against his high school's new dress code. Within a short time, the new dress code was abandoned, and ever since then he's been getting his hands dirty deconstructing the media every step of the way. Wolf recently became the longest-incarcerated journalist for contempt of court in U.S. history after he spent 226 days in federal prison for his refusal to cooperate. In Media sphere, Josh shares his daily insights on the developing information landscape and examines how various corporate and governmental actions effect the free press both in the United States and abroad.
Josh Wolf
3 min read

Surveillance cameras are everywhere. Every ATM snaps your mug, and each time you get into a taxi your photo is recorded as well. According to the BBC, our images are captured an average of 300 times each day. While we've grown used to these security cameras in our malls and at stoplights, the influx of surveillance cameras in our public spaces should be of great concern to everyone.

As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago has 560 crime cameras that are actively monitored for criminal activity. In London there are more than 10,000 cameras. These so-called "crime cameras" have multiple roles: they are intended to provide evidence of crimes when they occur, they are meant to deter criminals, and they are a reminder that Big Brother is watching.

Though proponents of crime cameras celebrate how the technology can reduce violent crime and bring murderers to justice, Earl Gardner's experience with Chicago's cameras tells a story of harassment and illustrates why the expanding use of surveillance cameras is downright frightening.

From a control room a mile away, Gardner was seen sipping a beer in front of his house. The Chicago police quickly sprung into action and within minutes the 55-year-old resident was under arrest and wearing handcuffs. As the Chronicle reports:

It might seem like a steep expenditure of police resources for a small-time arrest, but Chicago authorities say busts like this serve a higher purpose. They let everyone know that police are watching as the city's 560 anti-crime cameras look in on the toughest street corners, a strategy intended to deter small-time and big-time crime alike.

While the message is certainly being heard, and Chicago credits more than 1,400 arrests to its crime cameras, it's unclear whether crime has actually been reduced. Violent crime in the city decreased by 2.5 percent between 2005 and 2006, but that isn't necessarily a result of the cameras. Even if the cameras are responsible for the lower rate of incidence, it is important to consider how much our personal privacy is worth.

The Chronicle goes on to explain how Chicago plans to expand the cameras.

Chicago has bigger plans. Mayor Richard Daley said recently that the city will have cameras on "almost every block" by 2016, when the city hopes to host the Summer Olympics.

The city is exploring so-called smart cameras, which could recognize faces and compare them to mug shots of wanted offenders, or sound an alarm and zoom in if a certain movement is detected, such as two cars colliding or a person falling to pavement. Lewin said police had spoken to manufacturers about whether a camera could detect the shape of a gun.

George Orwell foretold of a future without privacy and a world where children are encouraged to spy on their neighbors and their parents. He wrote about a world where the truth is constantly being rewritten to fit the current political conditions, and offered his book as a warning to the world of a future he feared.

The story of Chicago's cameras and how they landed Earl Gardner in jail for drinking a beer should trigger an alarm for all of us. The promise of smart cameras that can recognize faces and track citizens as they go about their daily business is an even scarier proposition and we only need to look to the story of Winston Smith in 1984 to realize that though such technology may reduce crime, it comes at a great cost that cannot be ignored.